Category Archives: academe

Mutterings in favour of Kelsen

Hart’s Essays in Jurisprudence and Philosophy includes two pieces engaging, in tones of patient and courteous bafflement, with the ‘pure theory of law’ propounded by Hans Kelsen. Hart focuses on four main assertions:

  1. Law is a system… All valid laws, qua valid laws, form a single system. Kelsen was willing to extend this argument to cover international law, with the implication that there is only one system of law in the world.
  2. …which is logically coherent, Every legal system must be logically self-consistent throughout, such that no two valid laws can contradict each other.
  3. rests on a basic norm… While a legal system must be observed (treated as binding on conduct) in order to have any validity, every legal system is also founded on a presupposed ‘basic norm’ on which all legal powers granted within that system, and all laws laid down by those powers, ultimately rest.
  4. and has no moral content. Legal obligation and moral obligation are distinct and separate concepts, deriving from separate logical systems: if moral obligations were allowed to impinge on the law, it would be possible for obligations to conflict, which would destroy the logical coherence of the law as a system. The statement that a valid law is immoral is thus of no more legal significance than the observation that it was enacted on a Tuesday.

For completeness, I should add that Kelsen subsequently revised the second and third points here, allowing the possibility of valid contradictory laws and redefining the ‘basic norm’, not as a norm which was presupposed rather than having been enacted, but as a fictitious norm enacted by a fictitious lawmaker. The second of these is more promising than it sounds; I haven’t been able to find any commentary on the first.

Hart’s arguments against Kelsen are both meticulous and dense, but they take two main forms: demonstrations that one of Kelsen’s assertions cannot be logically sustained, or has unsatisfactory implications if assumed to be true; and demonstrations that, even if true, the assertion would not do the work Kelsen claims that it does. I’m certainly not in a position to say anything authoritative about Kelsen, let alone rebut any of Hart’s criticisms. In this post I want to take on an easier target: Hart’s bafflement. Repeatedly in Hart’s two papers we seem to hear him muttering Why would you think that? Or perhaps, Yes, that’s very neat, but why would you think it’s true? (Something similar can be heard, rather less sotto voce, in Neil Duxbury’s 2007 paper on the later ‘fictitious’ basic norm.) In Hart’s hands, Kelsen’s pure theory comes across as the proverbial beautiful hypothesis brought down by an ugly fact – or rather, a dense and elaborate hypothetical architecture undermined by a closely-marshalled assault by ugly facts. Kelsen’s model seems to do some of the work done by Hart’s own theory of law, but only some of it and not as adequately.

For me, this prompts the question: why would you think that? If we took Kelsen’s pure theory as a starting point, what would it give us – would it take us anywhere that Hart’s legal positivism doesn’t? Here are some thoughts about three of the four counter-intuitive propositions above (I’m not touching the second, on grounds of not being familiar with Kelsen’s later revisions to it).

Law as a single system: well, plainly, all valid laws don’t compose a single system. Kelsen (on Hart’s account) advances very few arguments in support of this proposition, and Hart finds it easy to dismantle those which are offered. But the complex of ideas which Kelsen reduces to this assertion – the mutual recognition (or constitution) of international and domestic law; the tendency (and on occasion the need) for one jurisdiction’s laws to be honoured by another – may be worth more attention than Hart gives them. We could argue, for example, that law tends to universality, and that this tendency (as well as practical necessity) underlies the tendency for discrete legal systems to find points of contact and forms of understanding; international law, in this framework, would be a separate enterprise undertaken to provide a single universal solution to this problem, like a connectivity standard – SOAP to municipal law’s XML. (And there goes my very last reader!) We could then go further, treat the tendency to universality as a norm (part of a ‘morality of aspiration’ in Fuller’s terms) and suggest that, to the extent that a legal system refuses arrangements of mutual recognition with other systems, to that extent there’s something unlawlike about that system. This certainly isn’t a move Hart would make – for Hart there wasn’t much more to say in formal terms about the legal system in Nazi Germany than that it was one – but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad idea. In other words, perhaps what Kelsen had in his sights here is, precisely, an aspect of the morality of law.

The basic norm: digressing slightly, I found Duxbury’s paper both enlightening and frustrating. It’s frustrating because it appears to solve its central mystery halfway through and then carry on as if it was still unsolved. (Unless I’m missing something obvious – also a frustrating thought!) To fill in the background, Kelsen saw the law as composed of ‘norms’ – conceived mainly as statements that behaviour X would attract sanction Y – which had been enacted by acts of will; the acts in question had been validated by prior norms, setting down how and by whom law could be made. However, these norms themselves had (by definition) been enacted by acts of will, creating an infinite regress (or founding the law on the brute facts of history, although this doesn’t seem to be an alternative Kelsen entertained). Hence a basic norm, never actually enacted, had to be presupposed as the foundation for the entire system. Late in life Kelsen changed tack: rather than presupposing a basic norm which (although not enacted) was both real and valid, he proposed that we treat the basic norm as a fictitious norm, enacted like all other norms, but enacted by a fictitious act of will.

Duxbury’s paper looks for support for the proposition that this isn’t as daft as it sounds, and largely fails – or rather (in my view) succeeds halfway through, almost without noticing. The key is in Kelsen’s definition of ‘fictitious’: he follows a philosopher called Vaihinger (not otherwise familiar to me) who distinguished between the partially fictitious (things which could exist but just happened not to) and the wholly fictitious (things which couldn’t exist). The basic norm, in Kelsen’s late formulation, is wholly fictitious: in other words, it’s a contradiction in terms, the paradox of a valid norm resting on an act of will which itself has no validation. Viewed in this light, the late formulation is, perhaps, a more satisfactory restatement of the earlier one. By putting our trust in the basic norm, we are not arbitrarily presupposing a norm which happens to have arisen without a prior valid act of will – which, in Kelsen’s terms, is a bit like arbitrarily presupposing a triangle which happens to have four sides. Rather, we are deliberately relying on a norm which we have defined as paradoxical and impossible: our triangle has four sides and we know it.

What does this get us? I think it gets at an aspect of the moral significance of law – another theme on which Hart wasn’t particularly keen. In terms of actually, practically grounding the validity of law, Hart cut Kelsen’s knot and warded off the infinite regress by proposing that every law-governed society has its own ‘rule of recognition’ – a rule, or practice, or assumption, or set of rules and practices and assumptions, which determines how law is made and who by. The reference is sideways rather than upwards, in other words (“Who can revise law A?” “Refer to rulebook X.” “Who can revise rulebook X?” “Refer to rulebook X.”). But, whatever the rule of recognition might in practice be, I think the idea of the basic norm – and in particular the fictitious basic norm – captures something important about why the law matters, or is believed to matter. Ultimately, perhaps, the question the basic norm answers isn’t “where did this law come from?” but “why should I obey this law?”. And here there still is a reference upwards, unless it’s cut off by a learned shrug (“why should you obey this law? because you’re a citizen of a law-governed country, this law is a validly enacted law according to that country’s rule of recognition, and as such obeying validly enacted laws is what you should do”). “Why should I obey this law?” “Because you should obey the Law[= those laws currently in force in your society].” “Why should I obey the Law?” “Because it’s right to obey The Law[=the laws laid down in pursuance of the project of subjecting social behaviour to just, consistent and uniform regulation]“. “Why is it right to obey The Law?” “Because the basic norm demonstrates how important the enterprise of The Law is – it’s important enough to be founded on a paradox; important enough for its foundations to be treated as real even though we know they’re not.”

No moral content: here Kelsen might seem to be cutting with the grain of Hart’s positivism, as well as against the grain of any kind of natural law theory. Things aren’t that simple, though; although Hart certainly maintained that the rule of recognition (and hence the law) could have no moral content, he was at pains to deny that it must have none. The rule of recognition itself could encompass moral precepts, in other words. Although we can see why Hart might have made this move – presumptively de-moralising the rule of recognition would have created hostages to fortune in his disputes with natural law theorists – I tend to think it creates unnecessary confusion. Although lawyers and legislators can and do invoke moral assumptions in their decisions (this being the avenue Hart would have wanted to close off) they do not do so in any predictable or systematic way, which is surely what would be required for moral arguments to form part of a rule of recognition. I would argue that the ‘rule of recognition’ model sits more comfortably with Kelsen’s austere division between moral and legal domains: whatever morality might dictate, the law is what is made law through the practices of legislators, lawyers and juries, and nothing else.

Despite appearances, treating law entirely as positive law is not the end of the line for the moral critique of law, or even for natural law. If law is autonomous of morality, this does not make the project of subjecting law to morality any less valid or important – if anything, the reverse is true. Moreover, if there is a ‘natural’ core to positive law, as Hart conceded; or if the conditions of possibility for a community living under the law can be considered as a ‘morality of law’, as Fuller argued; or if (as Jules Coleman has argued) morality itself requires that the law be applied consistently and interpreted without reference to moral norms; then the dichotomy between morality and positive law cannot be treated as absolute. And – paradoxically perhaps – if we want to think about how the dichotomy should be modified and reinterpreted, we’re better off starting with a theory which emphasised it (Kelsen’s) than with one which blurred and downplayed it (Hart’s).

In short, the reason why Kelsen’s theory looks logically airtight, unsustainable in the real world and ultimately slightly crazy may actually be that it is all of those things – but it’s still useful to think with, and in some ways more useful than Hart’s all-purpose scepticism.

Next up: Hart on Fuller. That should be quick and easy…

Anyone still here? Do feel free to comment, link, retweet etc.

The names of the Rawls

My very last post (I hope) on Rawls’s A Theory of Justice as seen by H.L.A. Hart. (A specialised subject, but a surprisingly interesting one. Well, I was surprised – this is the seventh post in what was originally going to be a series of one.)

Learning about Rawls via Hart, I find myself fascinated by Rawls’s ideas but very much out of sympathy with them – as Hart was himself, although I don’t think my reservations are quite the same as his. In this post I want to look at some of the labels which – it occurred to me as I read Hart’s review – can be applied to Rawls, or to aspects of what Rawls does. It’s all going to be a bit “blind men and the elephant”, but hopefully it will indicate the shape of something coherent.

Rawls, bourgeois liberal
One of the more obvious ways to pigeonhole Rawls would be to situate his liberalism within his time and place: don’t say ‘liberal’, say ‘bourgeois liberal’. This would seem straightforwardly appropriate while also suggesting the location of some hard limits to his thought (even if they were limits that Rawls managed to avoid running up against). Speaking as a Marxist, I’ve got some sympathy for this approach, but I’m not sure how much about Rawls it would really tell us. Although treating money as a simple fact of life is a dreadful faux pas for anyone who took the first chapter of Capital seriously, that of itself probably isn’t enough to earn Rawls the B-word. Again, Rawls alludes to personal property ownership as a basic liberty, but it’s clear that this doesn’t include the ownership of the means of production, and debatable whether it includes land. While Rawls clearly wasn’t a Marxist – and, just as clearly, was a liberal – it doesn’t seem particularly helpful or enlightening to label him a bourgeois liberal.

Rawls, right-Libertarian
Can we follow Rawls’s liberalism in another direction? There’s certainly something striking about his seeming incuriosity about harm and protection from harm. One might expect the need to protect individuals from avoidable harm to be acknowledged as a goal of any society; liberties, in this perspective, are rights held by individuals in those situations where the pursuit of safety through prohibition produces greater harms. Instead, Rawls seems to take liberties as primary and define harms largely in terms of encroachments on them. This line of thinking seems, at least, consonant with the outlook of those who view government interventions as illegitimate, however protectively they might be intended – and view the harms independent citizens do to one another in robust caveat emptor terms (or even robuster vae victis terms). That said, Rawls’s world is clearly not one in which the weak go to the wall, let alone one in which this outcome is celebrated; moreover, his relative lack of interest in private property as a basic right is even less characteristic of right-Libertarianism than of bourgeois liberalism.

Rawls, conservativeright-Hegelian
As I noted several posts ago, there’s something oddly cautious about some of Rawls’s formulations – it’s a conservative utopianism, or (perhaps) a Hegelian sublation of contemporary liberalism, with an emphasis on the preservation rather than the suppression (see digressive footnotes). Thus, when he writes that “rights to the unimpeded access to public places and to the free use of social resources to express our political views … when granted to all, [would be] so unworkable and socially divisive that they would actually greatly reduce the effective scope of freedom of speech”, I feel he’s taken rather more of the limitations of our real world with him than somebody starting from scratch really needs to. (If every public space were Hyde Park Corner, would that ‘actually’ reduce effective freedom of speech? Necessarily?) Of course, those adjectives do a lot of the work – “unimpeded access to public places”, “free use of social resources” – but then, don’t they always? There’s a sense, in other words, in which Rawls’s maximalism is complicit with a kind of conservatism – as if to say, “ideally, public transport would take everyone to wherever they want to go, door to door, in the shortest possible time and free of charge… but since that’s not possible, how much should a bus pass cost?”

Rawls, quietist
I wonder, too, about the particular human fundamentals on which Rawls rests his model – the two ‘moral powers’, the powers to co-operate reasonably and deliberate rationally. I wonder about this choice of starting-point because of the consequences it seems logically to have. As we have seen, Hart puzzled over the possibility of conflicting valuations of different liberties – the liberty to roam versus the liberty to enjoy private property in land; the liberty to play loud music versus the liberty to enjoy peace and quiet – and queried whether Rawls’s scheme could address this. Rawls’s development of the metric of ‘significance’ with regard to particular liberties, together with the device of the veil of ignorance, seems to cover it. Parties in the original position would not know whether they were landowners or not, or for that matter whether they enjoyed loud music or not, but would know that the interests of each were best served by a balance of liberties which would promote the moral development of all. The interests of both the landowner and the trespasser, and the preferences for both loud music and a quiet life, would necessarily be taken into account. But this is quietist on quite a deep level: the ideal outcome seems to be, not merely a system without injustice, but one without conflict. The point is not that conflicts of interest and diverging preferences would be taken into account, but that they would always already have been taken into account. I find it hard to reconcile this line of thinking with Rawls’s evident assumption that political processes would operate in his imagined society; I’m not sure what point politics would have. This is not, in other words, the work of someone who believes that human history has always been and always will be driven by scarcities and conflicts of interest.

Rawls, utopian
Or perhaps – and in a way this is the most troubling charge of all – Rawls did believe that human history had been driven by conflict, but saw it (in Stephen Dedalus’s formulation) as “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. But in that case we’re basically just worldbuilding, and for me that’s not terribly interesting (cf. comments on Hart on Nozick; see also footnote on Marx).

Rawls, Pragmatist
Perhaps the simplest explanation – and one which corresponds reasonably well to the overall shape of the elephant – is the one I alluded to in an earlier post. Whether Rawls would have called himself a Pragmatist I don’t know, but I wonder if he believed, like Dewey, in working with the materials to hand: starting with what we think we know, what we think matters and what we think works well, discarding anything that can’t be justified from (what we think of as) first principles, and then working outwards and upwards. In which case, the charge of worldbuilding is both accurate and irrelevant: Rawls was building an ideal world, but he was building an ideal world based on some very basic and widely shared fundamentals. It’s an ideal world, but it’s our ideal world – isn’t it? And if not, why not?

Digressive footnotes

On Hegelian sublation (nothing to do with Rawls, but who knows when I’ll mention sublation again?): the sublation (Aufhebung) of the concept is a dialectical process encompassing preservation and suppression. Not ‘realisation’. You see this phrase ‘realisation and suppression’ a lot in Situationist-influenced writing; I’m not sure how it got started or by whom (Vaneigem?) but it ain’t Hegel. I’m guessing somebody once described the higher-order supersession of the concept – which is the end-result of the Aufhebung – as its realisation, somebody else misread that and we were off.

On Marx: it’s interesting that Marx is often criticised as a utopian, not so much because he designed ideal worlds as because he refused to do so, beyond that famous aside about rearing cattle after lunch or whatever it was. Starting from a blank slate is bad enough – insisting on leaving the slate blank is even worse, somehow. And yet, if you look at the Communist Manifesto, at least the initial shape of the future society is right there, in only too much detail. It’s some sort of tribute to the power and groundedness of Marx’s thought that Marxists are still denounced as impractical dreamers – or, at worst, loaded with the actual crimes and errors of other Marxists – rather than being accused of wanting to organise labour brigades and socialise the institution of marriage.

Hart on Rawls – a review

First, some links to the individual posts in this series.

  1. Liberty or liberties?
  2. Restricting liberty for liberty’s sake
  3. Restricting liberty for harm’s sake
  4. Choosing (more) liberty
  5. The priority of liberty (same post as previous)

These five points can be boiled down to three key questions: the quantification of liberty; the joint possibility of individual liberties, posing the need for protective as well as permissive rights; and the human preference for liberty over (for example) material wealth or peace and quiet. On the first of these I’d say that Rawls carries the day, at least in the sense that Hart’s challenge prompted some valuable elaboration and clarification of his model. On the other two – which are inter-related, at least in Rawls’s presentation of them – I’m less sure. Rawls’s argument is airtight – and he appears to escape the charge of designing a model world for model citizens – but I’m not entirely convinced; I think Hart’s scepticism may be the X that marks the spot of quite a deep equivocation.

Quantifying liberty (posts 1 and 2)
The quantification of liberty appears to pose problems for Rawls in two respects: allocation and comparison. Suppose that the basic liberties can each be considered as contributing a quantum of fungible ‘Liberty-stuff’ to an overall total. In that case, there is no reason to take the actual list of basic liberties as definite, and it may be that a model which maximised the amount of Liberty-stuff allocated to all citizens would take us in directions that Rawls wouldn’t want to go (e.g. away from the institution of private property). If, on the other hand, the basic liberties are seen as individually and discretely valuable – because what they provide is not fungible Liberty-stuff but different and distinguishable types of freedom – then there seems to be no basis on which to strike a balance between them. This second possibility becomes more pressing if we consider Rawls’s dictum that a liberty should only be restricted for the sake of another liberty: if liberties are incommensurable, how can this be achieved except by random selection?

Rawls addressed both these points in the 1982 lectures by introducing the notion of ‘significance’, and in the process making it clearer that liberties function in his model as a means to an end. He wrote: “a liberty is more or less significant depending on whether it is more or less essentially involved in, or is a more or less necessary institutional means to protect, the full and informed and effective exercise of the moral powers” – these in turn being the powers to co-operate reasonably and to seek the good rationally. The basic liberties are liberties which are in fact conducive to reasonable co-operation and rational deliberation; the issue of comparison is resolved by considering the conditions created by the exercise of a particular liberty. The question of allocation (and fungibility) is not banished as easily; however, what Rawls can offer is a strong presumption that the basic liberties he lists do have at least some ‘significance’ in his sense, and the criteria with which an alternative list would need to be justified.

Compossibility (posts 3 and 4)
The two questions of whether restrictions on liberty could be justified in order to prevent harm, and of whether the choice of greater liberty for all would be rational, both turn on the Kantian question of the conditions for the joint possibility (or compossibility) of individual wills freely exercised. We know from experience that societies can function on the basis of a shifting balance of freedom and coercion; the question is whether there is a coherent and non-arbitrary solution to the problem, a framework of basic rights or liberties which will tend to produce social harmony out of the free independent actions of individuals. Hart’s comments suggest that, in his view, Rawls has assumed that his model has this virtue but has not demonstrated it.

Rawls’s answer to this point is, once again, to invoke the ‘significance’ of the basic liberties and their exercise. The point, in other words, is not to maximise liberty or liberties, but to create those conditions which are best created by the exercise of the basic liberties. It follows that a balance between the basic liberties, and hence the limitation of particular (less significant) liberties, is an integral part of the model. The basic liberties are both self-limiting and mutually limiting: to the extent that a liberty furthers “the full and informed and effective exercise of the moral powers”, to that extent it will tend to be protected over and against liberties whose exercise is less significant.

I find this argument convincing but unpersuasive; to put it another way, it seems to answer the question within its own framework but at the cost of making that framework less attractive – and, perhaps, distancing it from the world in which the question was asked. It may be significant that the question of harm is one on which (at least according to Hart’s account) Rawls is all over the place: starting from the presumption that a liberty should only be curtailed for the sake of another liberty, we can cover the idea of infringing liberty to protect from harm by invoking the liberty-reducing effects of harm, an association between citizenship and the exercise of liberties, and ideas of a duty of care to animals and the natural world, but it ends up looking like a bit of a hack. (The hackwork is mostly mine, but the gap it fills seems to have been left by Rawls.)

The preference for liberty (post 4)
Lastly, Hart poses two questions which can both be taken as calling into question Rawls’s assumption of a preference for liberty (as distinct from, say, material wealth or a quiet life). Hart suggests that Rawls has tacitly built his model society on a liberal model of active civic virtue, thereby resolving all such questions in favour of the – undeniably virtuous but potentially strenuous and unrewarding – pursuit of reasonable co-operation and rational deliberation.

The charge is made lightly but it is potentially devastating, reducing Rawls’s model to a utopian vision of how people would live if only they were good. Rawls rejects it, quietly but firmly; while he concedes that his presuppositions are liberal, they find expression not in the characters of the subjects populating his model but in their nature. Specifically, it is in their nature to work together with other individuals (and hence to value reciprocity and fairness) and to value some states of affairs more highly than others (and hence to value morality and logic). The only qualities Rawls reads into the subjects in his model are the capacities to co-operate reasonably, where ‘reasonableness’ includes a sense of justice, and to deliberate rationally, where ‘rationality’ includes an idea of the good. Everything else in the model follows – which is to say, everything in the model follows from some facts about people as they are.

Again, I find myself convinced but unpersuaded. One reason why I’ve harped on Rawls’s particular definitions of the ‘reasonable’ and ‘rational’ is that they’re easily overlooked, but make Rawls’s model much easier to understand if they’re taken into account – cf. Hart’s puzzlement over how the model would work on assumptions of ‘self-interested rationality’. But another reason is more critical. Certainly there are such things as co-operative reasonableness and rationality oriented towards an idea of the good, and practices informed by them; an account of society based exclusively on individual self-interest would be not so much impoverished as false. But bracketing out means/end rationality and reasonableness in the pursuit of one’s own desires seems like an equal and opposite distortion. The question is not whether Rawls’s moral powers are a human reality but whether they could ever do the work he wants them to – and saying that they could do if their exercise were given priority over less moral pursuits is begging the question.

I sense that Hart saw a deep equivocation here, between a model which could exist (in the sense that it rests on valid assumptions about human nature) and one which could exist (in the sense that the model itself represents an imaginable society). It may be that Rawls only saw himself as developing the first of these; however, to the extent that such an abstract standard can be a driver for reforms to the society we have, it must surely be possible to envisage reforms which would represent steps towards it, even if they were fated never to reach it. And, if Rawls’s model is supposed to represent something approachable (even if not attainable), we’re back to the original question: why are his subjects so nice? The answer seems obvious – it’s because they’ve chosen to prioritise conditions favouring the exercise of the two moral powers – but this only defers the question: in the light of most of human history to date, why have they chosen to do that? If we’re going to have a society founded on a complex balance of basic liberties – and it sounds like a good idea – where are we going to get the people who want one? And, if we haven’t go those people, maybe we should be working on something for the people we have got – a theory of justice as between flawed, lazy, selfish and intermittently deceitful people, for example.

 

Hart on Rawls – 4

Yet more on Hart and his 1973 paper on John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Hart put forward five queries; in this post I’ll be covering the fourth and fifth.

  1. Liberty or liberties?
  2. Restricting liberty for liberty’s sake
  3. Restricting liberty for harm’s sake The third post in this series focused on what seems to be a blind spot in Rawls’s argument: the idea that liberties may sometimes need to be limited for harm-related as well as liberty-related reasons.
  4. Choosing (more) liberty Rawls argues that subjects in the original position would, in their own interest, tend to choose more rather than less extensive liberties. Given the potential adverse effects of liberties extended to the whole of society, is this valid?
  5. The priority of liberty Following on from the previous point: Rawls appears to believe that, all else being equal, subjects in the original position would choose a quantum of liberty over a quantum of material benefit. Is this an unstated presupposition on Rawls’ part? How is our perception of his model affected if this is granted?

Choosing (more) liberty
Hart’s argument on the fourth point, above, hinges on the difference between enjoying a liberty and being affected by other people’s enjoyment of it – a consideration which may cast a different light on Rawls’s assumption that it is rational, from the standpoint of the original position, to want as large a share of liberty as possible. “Even if we assume with Rawls that every rational person would prefer as much liberty as he can get … it does not follow that a liberty which can only be obtained by an individual at the cost of its general distribution through society is one that a rational person would still want.” If the question is whether I want to be free to have a symphony orchestra in my back garden, the answer is Yes, of course – why wouldn’t I? If the question is whether I want my neighbours to have that same freedom, the answer is No. Or rather (crucially) the answer may be No. It may not: I may have a high tolerance for noise; I may have an overpowering fascination with the sound of a symphony orchestra, or an academic interest in discord. Different people will make different choices; in many cases, “whether it would be rational to prefer liberty at the cost of others having it too must depend on one’s temperament and desires” – which, of course, cannot be referred to in the original position.

There are two issues here. One is whether liberties can be generalised in any straightforward way, given that each person’s actions will have effects on other people: a generalised liberty-to-X is also a generalised right-to-protection-from-interference-in-Xing, or else a liberty-to-X-subject-to-interference (which in some situations will barely deserve the name of ‘liberty’). We’re in familiar Kantian or post-Kantian territory here: from my right to X we cannot simply read off a prohibition on some other action Y, even where your doing Y makes my Xing difficult or impossible. (Where X = ‘maintain my bodily integrity’ and Y = ‘swing your fists wildly’, the argument for liberty to be accompanied by protection works well enough; where X = ‘run my business as I think best’ and Y = ‘strike for higher pay’, however…) On Hart’s account Rawls has basically overlooked this.

The second issue is the irreducible fact of human variety. Hart sometimes seems to mean this in a relatively weak sense – preference for quiet vs tolerance of noise – which is vulnerable to Rawls’s ‘best worst case’ argument: since subjects in the original position wouldn’t know what preferences they had, they would work on the basis that they might prefer quiet (or privacy, harmony, etc) and reluctantly forgo the possible pleasures of noise (or intrusiveness, strife, etc). (Something interesting surfaces here in terms of the kind of values likely to be selected in the original position; I’ll return to this later.) However, Hart’s argument also takes a stronger form. When it comes to human variety, Hart stresses repeatedly – and I think correctly – that it applies at every level. I’ll discuss this below, when I come to consider Rawls’s answer to Hart on the second point (and on Hart’s fifth question).

On the first point, Rawls argues that the basic liberties themselves can do the job. Or rather, he argues that a society committed to the general effective exercise of the basic liberties would ipso facto be a society in which their exercise was limited. Not only is an extensive scheme of liberties the only justification for limiting individual liberties; it is, Rawls argues, the only thing necessary. He notes “that the basic liberties not only limit one another but they are also self-limiting”, adding that “[t]he notion of significance shows why this is so”. His explanation merits quoting at length:

while we might want to include in our freedom of (political) speech rights to the unimpeded access to public places and to the free use of social resources to express our political views, these extensions of our liberty, when granted to all, are so unworkable and socially divisive that they would actually greatly reduce the effective scope of freedom of speech. These consequences are recognized by delegates to a constitutional convention who are guided by the rational interest of the representative equal citizen in a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties. Thus, the delegates accept reasonable regulations relating to time and place, and the access to public facilities, always on a footing of equality. For the sake of the most significant liberties, they abandon any special claims to the free use of social resources. This enables them to establish the rules required to secure an effective scope for free political speech in the fundamental case.

The basic liberties are means to the end of securing a general freedom to co-operate reasonably (where reason implies justice) and to deliberate rationally (where rationality includes an idea of the good). Whether “rights to the unimpeded access to public places and to the free use of social resources to express our political views” would in fact prove to be unworkable and socially divisive is a secondary, political question (and one on which I’m inclined to disagree with Rawls). The point here is that the basic liberties are, so to speak, a weapon that can only be used for good: freedom of speech extended to the point where it undermines its own object ceases to be desirable and hence will, in Rawls’s model, be curtailed. The question of unintended consequences does not arise; the most extensive possible scheme of basic liberties is one which has no unintended consequences (any more extensive would be too extensive).

This is certainly an answer, but I’m not sure how useful it is. At this point Hart and Rawls seem to be talking past each other; certainly the question of how liberties could justly be restricted by and in a society of people committed to the most extensive possible scheme of basic liberties isn’t one that we can imagine detaining Hart for long. But we’re moving now onto the terrain of the second point above, and of the fifth question, which I’ll introduce here.

The priority of liberty
In the final section of his essay Hart comments on a curious detail of Rawls’s model: the ‘priority rule’. It is envisaged that, when subjects behind the veil of ignorance adopt a scheme of basic liberties, they do so on the understanding that the implementation of the scheme may be postponed until the material wealth of the society has developed sufficiently to support it. (I’m personally not sure about the assumption that a scheme of basic liberties requires a certain material substrate, but let’s take it as read.) When society’s material development reaches a certain point, Rawls argues, liberty (or liberties) will take priority: any quantum of material progress which might have been used to make unfree citizens a bit richer will instead be used to develop the institutions required to support the basic liberties. Now, the subjects behind the veil of ignorance have no idea what stage of material development their society has reached, so the question of when to invoke a priority rule – and, more importantly, whether to invoke it at all – will be a live one. Rawls compares different hypothetical social orders by reference to the ‘least worst’ position (in which society would the worst-off individual be least deprived?); in this case, Hart argues, we have a choice between A, an impoverished individual who would rather have a bit more money than the free institutions her society is intent on building (society with priority rule) and B, her counterpart who desires forbidden political freedoms even more than an escape from poverty (society with no priority rule). Rawls’s argument implies (according to Hart) that rational subjects in the original position would consistently think it worse to be B than A.

But is this the case – or rather (a more important as well as an easier question) is this self-evidently the case? Hart suggests not: “[w]hen the veil of ignorance is lifted some will prefer A to B and others B to A”. Rawls’s ideal subjects do not have the variability of human beings, in other words – variability which (as Hart insists) operates at every level.  I myself prefer strawberries to raspberries, folk songs to pop songs, tranquillity to bustle, democratic accountability to executive efficiency, freedom of religion to compulsory observance, agnosticism to atheism, wisdom to knowledge, debate to certainty and a Fullerian liberal idealist reading of the rule of law to the disaggregative scepticism of contemporary legal positivism – but it’s perfectly legitimate to take the opposite position on any or all of these points, and plenty of people do. As the 25-year-old Karl Marx pointed out, the law works by treating unequal people equally, but it can only do so by taking a partial view – treating them from a particular angle, and an angle (Hart might have added) which may vary from one legal system to another. (On first consideration I thought that these two challenges – the problem of subjecting human variety to a uniform rule and the possibility of multiple approaches to doing so – were also a score against legal positivism, but on reflection that’s the wrong way round: these are questions which positivists leave unanswered, but the possibility of a coherent theory which leaves them unanswered is a point in positivism’s favour.)

If Rawls’s model relies on there being a single answer on which everyone can agree – at any level – that’s a score against it; at least, it suggests that there’s something different and more idealistic going on than Rawls appears to acknowledge. Hart:

I think the apparently dogmatic course of Rawls’s argument for the priority of liberty may be explained by the fact that, though he is not offering it merely as an ideal, he does harbour a latent ideal of his own, on which he tacitly draws when he represents the priority of liberty as a choice which the parties in the original position must, in their own interest, make as rational agents choosing from behind the veil of ignorance. The ideal is that of a public-spirited citizen who prizes political activity and service to others as among the chief goods of life and could not contemplate as tolerable an exchange of the opportunities for such activity for mere material goods or contentment. It is, of course, among the chief ideals of Liberalism, but Rawls’s argument for the priority of liberty purports to rest on interests, not on ideals, and to demonstrate that the general priority of liberty reflects a preference for liberty over other goods which every self-interested person who is rational would have.

We seem to have come a rather long way round to end up back with Schutz and the (social) scientist as puppeteer. One sign that there may be a bit more going on here is Hart’s use of the word ‘rational’ to refer to self-interested means/end rationality; as we have seen, the word has a specialised and somewhat teleological meaning for Rawls. So too does ‘reasonable’, a word which features heavily in Rawls’s response to Hart on this point. Rawls acknowledges that Hart was correct “in supposing that a conception of the person in some sense liberal underlies the argument for the priority of liberty”. But:

this conception is the altogether different conception of citizens as free and equal persons; and it does not enter justice as fairness by imputation to the parties. Rather, it enters through the constraints of the Reasonable imposed on the parties in the original position as well as in the revised account of primary goods. This conception of the person as free and equal also appears in the recognition by the parties that the persons they represent have the two moral powers  … This conception of the person can be said to be liberal (in the sense of the philosophical doctrine) because it takes the capacity for social cooperation as fundamental and attributes to persons the two moral powers which make such cooperation possible.

The point is not that everyone in Rawls-world is good and public-spirited. The point is, rather, that Rawls assumes a society of free and equal persons, each of whom is capable of two things: social co-operation, subject to the demands of fairness and promise-keeping which can be called ‘reasonable’; and ethical deliberation, within the framework of logic and value which can be called ‘rational’. In terms of entry requirements for the world of his model, Rawls has set the bar surprisingly low. To derive the priority of liberty – or any other of Rawls’s apparently idealistic or counter-intuitive formulations – we may not need to assume a world of model citizens; perhaps all we need to do is to assume that everyone is capable of working together and valuing one set of ideas more highly than another, and then take those assumptions seriously.

Enough for now; I’ll conclude next time with a bit of summing-up and some thoughts on Rawls as libertarian, as bourgeois liberal, as conservative… as quite a variety of unpleasant names.

Hart on Rawls – 3

More on Hart and his 1973 paper on John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Hart put forward five queries, of which I’ve now covered the first two:

  1. Liberty or liberties?
  2. Restricting liberty for liberty’s sake In the second post in this series, we saw that the idea of restricting one liberty for the sake of another raises commensurability issues. In his reply to Hart, Rawls addressed these – partially addressing Hart’s first criticism in the process – by introducing the metric of ‘significance’.
  3. Restricting liberty for harm’s sake Rawls appears not to grant that liberties should sometimes be limited for harm-related as well as liberty-related reasons. Is this sustainable?
  4. Choosing (more) liberty Rawls argues that subjects in the original position would, in their own interest, tend to choose more rather than less extensive liberties. Given the potential adverse effects of liberties extended to the whole of society, is this valid?
  5. The priority of liberty Following on from the previous point: Rawls appears to believe that, all else being equal, subjects in the original position would choose a quantum of liberty over a quantum of material benefit. Is this an unstated presupposition on Rawls’ part? How is our perception of his model affected if this is granted?

Now for #3.

Restricting liberty for harm’s sake
Although (as we have seen) Rawls later modified this position, in the first edition of A Theory of Justice he argued that a basic liberty could only legitimately be curtailed for the sake of another basic liberty – or rather, for the sake of bringing about a more extensive and/or more equal distribution of basic liberties. As Hart pointed out, this implies that it is possible to weigh up basic liberties against one another, a problematic position which I covered in the previous post. Hart also criticises this position on the grounds of what it does not include: specifically, it makes no provision for restrictions to basic liberties for the sake of preventing harm, or (more broadly) in order to restrict or regulate behaviour which causes loss, pain or suffering to others.

This is a fairly big deal. The possibility of living together in freedom and under law has been a focus of political philosophy since Kant. If we say, broadly following Kant, that the law should protect each individual’s right to pursue his own interests without prejudice to anyone else’s right to pursue theirs, we run into the problem that interests conflict. I stress ‘conflict’ as distinct from ‘compete’: competing interests, as between two companies in the same line of business – where the parties have a rivalrous interest in the same resource – pose no problem in theory. Conflicting interests arise when the parties define the situation differently, as between a business (with a legitimate interest in maximising profit) and a trade union (with a legitimate interest in protecting its members). The problems this situation poses are, fairly clearly, political problems, with no easy answer on the philosophical plane. We could lower our sights somewhat and go with Mill, arguing for complete freedom of action up to the point where another person is harmed – a position which has entered the language in the formulation “The right for me to swing my fists ends where your face begins“. But, despite its surface plausibility, this gets us no further forward, as it depends entirely on interpretation of the word ‘harm’. Define ‘harm’ as actual physical harm and many undesirable activities would be permitted, from harassment to the sale of contaminated food. Define ‘harm’ as the setting back of interests and we’re back with Kant. Should trade unions be banned, as their tendency is to raise members’ wages, lower the amount available to pay dividends and hence harm (set back the interests of) shareholders? Should shareholders be expropriated, on the grounds that their extraction of value from businesses tends to lower the amount available to pay wages and hence harm (set back the interests of) workers? I’m not familiar enough with Mill’s work to say how he would have answered these questions, but I’m fairly confident that it would have been a political answer, rather than one dictated by the terms of the question.

There is no theoretical or practical difficulty encroaching on liberties so as to prevent harm; societies do it all the time. However, justifying those restrictions in a coherent and generalisable way has proved to be a serious challenge for political philosophy. Rawls, oddly, doesn’t seem to say much about it, other than to rule it out on principle – because a liberty should only be curtailed for the sake of a liberty (of greater significance). Can this be accepted, and if so how? Hart canvasses two – unsatisfactory – solutions, to which I’ll add another couple.

  1. They’re all liberties! Perhaps, when we curtail a liberty so as to prevent harm, we are actually doing so for the sake of another liberty. Steal my car and my effective liberty to exercise property rights is curtailed; hit me hard enough and my effective liberty to participate in society becomes moot, at least temporarily. Hit me when doing something you want to deter (voting, say) and the fear of future harm may have even more liberty-impairing effects. In other words, might harm be derivative of impairment of liberty? The argument is superficially attractive but ultimately implausible; as Hart comments, the actual valuation of injury and harm is clearly independent of any consequential liberty-impairing effects they may have. I would add that the argument is also covertly circular, inasmuch as liberties would be meaningless if we were not vulnerable to harm from one another. If property were inalienable (or all property were held in common), there would be no need for a right to property; if incitement could never result in injury, there would be no need to restrict speech and hence no need for a right to free speech.
  2. …unless they’re duties. In addition to the basic liberties, Rawls suggests that subjects behind the veil of ignorance would take on certain natural or moral duties, judging that the benefit to all from doing so outweighed the costs; examples include the duty to aid those in need and the duty not to cause unnecessary suffering. Clearly, the existence of duties would have some liberty-curtailing effects. Arguably this is unsatisfactory on grounds of theoretical parsimony; it certainly suggests that the ‘only curtail liberties for the sake of liberties’ formulation might need to be amended. In any case, the range of natural duties seems far too narrow to cover all those cases in which unrestricted liberties could foreseeably cause avoidable harm, from invasion of privacy to exhibitionism.
  3. We’re all citizens here. Perhaps Rawls overlooked the prevention of harm because, within his scheme, harm wasn’t relevant. He was designing a model to be inhabited by full citizens in effective possession of their liberties; a citizen convalescing in hospital, or immobilised by car theft, is not effectively a full citizen, and as such is of no relevance to the model. All we can do is hold their place in the model open for when they’re ready to occupy it again. The point could even be generalised to cover harms which do not directly attack liberties: a citizen recovering from a head wound may still be able to take part in political deliberations, but her mind won’t really be on the task in hand. This is probably the weakest solution of all: the point is, of course, to prevent one’s citizens from suffering these interpersonal harms in the first place, and one could well argue that a scheme of liberties which doesn’t do this job isn’t worth the candle – particularly if one were sitting in a planning meeting with a bandaged head at the time.
  4. …unless we’re minors. In the context of the second point here, Hart notes that Rawls acknowledges the existence of duties owed to the non-human world, “which are outside the scope of a theory of what is owed to a rational individual”. Building on this suggestion, we can imagine a modified combination of the first and third solutions, which would tie liberties to citizenship. In this model, criminal harms would be conceived as attacks on liberty-enjoying citizens, thus meeting Hart’s objection to the first solution – that our valuation of harms does not depend on their consequential liberty-impairing effects. Conversely, those who are routinely deprived of liberties – minors, prisoners, hospital patients etc – would be seen as deprived of citizenship because unable (for the moment) to exercise it effectively. Restrictions on liberties implemented in order to protect free citizens from harm, or to restrain those not able to exercise the liberties of citizenship effectively, could then be defined as restrictions on liberties for the sake of liberties, as Rawls would (presumably) wish. This is ingenious (if I say so myself) but unsatisfactory. Although it accounts for the assimilation of harms to attacks on liberties, it does so at too high a cost: the implication that prisoners, hospital patients et al are non-citizens is troubling, and the further implication that harms to those people are of less account is unacceptable. This model also fails to account for (among others) students, employees and the patients of psychoanalysts, all of whom are free citizens who are routinely subjected to un-lawlike regulation of their movements and activities.

It’s all rather unsatisfactory, and I’m afraid that’s how I’m going to have to leave it – Rawls’s 1982 lectures are as far as I’m going for further reading at the moment, and he makes no reference in them either to original-position duties or to the prevention of harm. Fortunately he’s a bit more forthcoming on Hart’s next question.

Hart on Rawls – 2

As noted in the previous post, in his 1973 paper on John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, Hart put forward five queries. They can be summarised under the following headings.

  1. Liberty or liberties? In the first part of this series, we saw that Rawls’s model of multiple ‘basic liberties’ is problematic: either they’re commensurable (which suggests that they may be fungible and hence that one or more of them can be dispensed with) or they’re incommensurable (in which case it’s debatable whether they have any common property of ‘liberty-ness’).
  2. Restricting liberty for liberty’s sake Rawls argues that the only justification for limiting a liberty is an overall extension of liberties. What issues does this raise in terms of resolving potential conflicts between liberties?
  3. Restricting liberty for harm’s sake Rawls appears not to grant that liberties should sometimes be limited for harm-related as well as liberty-related reasons. Is this sustainable?
  4. Choosing (more) liberty Rawls argues that subjects in the original position would, in their own interest, tend to choose more rather than less extensive liberties. Given the potential adverse effects of liberties extended to the whole of society, is this valid?
  5. The priority of liberty Following on from the previous point: Rawls appears to believe that, all else being equal, subjects in the original position would choose a quantum of liberty over a quantum of material benefit. Is this an unstated presupposition on Rawls’ part? How is our perception of his model affected if this is granted?

Now for part 2.

Restricting liberty for liberty’s sake
Rawls argues (in Hart’s words) that “basic liberties may be limited only for the sake of liberty”. Restriction, or the unequal distribution, of basic liberties can only be justified if the adjustment yields “a greater equal liberty” or “the best total system of equal liberty” (the last two phrases are Rawls’s). In simple cases what this means may be fairly straightforward; an example is the imposition of rules of debate, which both curtails the liberty to speak at will and protects the liberty to speak at length, for a net expansion of effective freedom of speech. Similarly, public order laws and military conscription can (sometimes) be justified as present curtailments of citizens’ liberties to prevent greater future inroads on the same liberties. In more complex cases, when rival and – ex hypothesi – incommensurable liberties are at stake, the adjustment between competing liberties should be made from the standpoint of “the representative equal citizen”, on the basis of what “it would be rational for him [sic] to prefer”.

Hart finds both these formulations problematic, suggesting that criteria of value will necessarily be involved in both. Beginning with the simple case, he argues that what rules of debate help to secure “is not a greater or more extensive liberty, but a liberty to do something which is more valuable for any rational person than the activities forbidden by the rules”. I think this is an important point, which could be pressed further. If I interrupt a speaker at a public meeting by shouting obscenities, I’m not ‘speaking’ – or, by extension, exercising freedom of speech – in the same sense that the speaker is: there’s a qualitative difference between using one’s voice to express ideas and using it to prevent ideas being expressed. More difficult examples are available, and the argument could be taken further: there is also a qualitative difference between using speech to create the conditions for an informed dialogue and using it to shut dialogue down, for instance by giving amplified and officially-sanctioned expression to settled government policy. But the principle is the same: one does not protect freedom of speech by limiting freedom of speech, as Rawls suggested. The freedom to speak in such a way as to develop one’s ideas without interruption is protected by limiting the freedom to interrupt; the freedom to engage in dialogue is protected (perhaps) by limiting the freedom to fill the space available with a privileged monologue.

I would also go further than Hart in critiquing Rawls’s examples of military conscription and public order legislation, which Hart passes over with a nod to their plausibility. To be precise, he uses formulations like “may be justified” and “might be plausibly said”; Hart the lawyer concedes that a case can be made out, so Hart the philosopher doesn’t need to get involved. But it’s arguable that this concession itself rests on an equivocation. It certainly is the case that infringements on civil liberties can be justified on the grounds that subversive organisations, if they achieved their aims, would infringe those same civil liberties more extensively. It can be done – it’s syntactically possible and rhetorically quite acceptable – and it often has been: if you don’t like Special Branch tapping a few people’s phones, imagine if it was the Stasi tapping everybody’s phone! (This specific illustration may have been overtaken by developments.) But this is a question of rhetoric and not of measurement – not least because the future potential curtailment of liberties can, by definition, not be measured. We can see this point more clearly if we look at Rawls’s formulation of the circumstances in which conscription might be justifiable – “if it is demanded for the defense of liberty[sic] itself, including here not only the liberties of the citizens of the society in question, but also those of persons in other societies”. Rhetorically this formulation plainly works well: it advances the plausible proposition that the loss of liberties in conscription can in some circumstances be justified on the basis of the liberties secured or defended thereby. But if we ask it to do a more demanding job – not to state the proposition but to ground it, by making it possible to compare one set of liberties to the other in a measurable way – the difficulties are obvious: the set of liberties to be defended is not only a potential future attribute of a political situation but an attribute of the situation of a different group of people. Ironically, what seems to lurk behind Rawls’s formulations is an idea of fungible Liberty-stuff, whose production can be restricted now so as to produce it in greater volumes at a later date.

In short, the ‘sameness’ of the liberties being curtailed and expanded, suspended and secured in the ‘simple’ case is more apparent than real: if we curtail a liberty for the sake of the overall balance of liberties (which, for Rawls, is the only justification for doing so) then we are always in the position of adjusting rival and incommensurable liberties. This makes the device of adjusting competing liberties from the standpoint of “the representative equal citizen” even more important. Hart expresses bafflement on this point: if we take it that two citizens may reasonably differ in the importance they attach to different values, it must follow that two citizens may reasonably differ in the priority they give to two competing liberties – not only in particular cases (disagreements which could conceivably be resolved by an appeal to a larger scheme of liberties) but in principle. As Hart points out, there is nothing irrational about valuing the liberty to roam above the liberty to enjoy property free from trespass, or vice versa; and examples could be multiplied. Once again it would appear that political disagreements are being elevated to the level of principle and then forestalled (or precluded), albeit in this case without any specification of how this would be done.

With regard to the “representative equal citizen”, Rawls’s 1982 lectures are of little help; he acknowledges Hart’s scepticism on this point but does not address it directly. It is worth noting that Rawls’s reference to the rational preferences of the representative equal citizen appears to rest on a very specific definition of rationality; Rawls defines the “two moral powers” as “the capacity for a sense of right and justice (the capacity to honor fair terms of cooperation and thus to be reasonable), and the capacity for a conception of the good (and thus to be rational)” (emphasis added). The only substantial reference to the “representative equal citizen” appears after Rawls’s definition of a “fully adequate scheme” of liberties as one in which the basic liberties are adjusted “so as to allow the adequate development and the full and informed exercise of both moral powers”. Such a scheme, Rawls argues, “coheres with that of adjusting the scheme of liberties in accordance with the rational interests of the representative equal citizen”. Other than noting that the term ‘rational’ is, presumably, used here to denote the capacity for a conception of the good (rather than simply referring to means/end rationality), it is difficult to gain much enlightenment from this. Either the conflict between rival liberties can be resolved in principle (in which case let’s get on and see how we can do it), or it can’t (in which case we are leaving a lot of important questions to be settled politically – and it’s not clear what philosophical work the basic liberties are doing). Rawls appears to be putting forward a middle position, in which conflicts between liberties can be resolved at the level of principle but we don’t know how. If, as Rawls seems to be suggesting, the key factor in making the resolution philosophically possible is the nature of the adjudicator – the “representative equal citizen” with her Good-oriented rationality – then we don’t seem to be saying much more than that people would get on much better if they were nice.

However, the 1982 lectures do enable us to resolve this question differently – or, perhaps, to sidestep it altogether. As the reference to an independently-justified “fully adequate scheme” suggests, the judgment of the “representative equal citizen” may be a device we can dispense with; perhaps there is something about the basic liberties themselves which makes it possible to resolve conflicts between them (without thereby specifying how the conflicts would be resolved). This line of argument seems to be closer to Rawls’s thinking, at least by the time of the 1982 lectures. In that text he introduces the criterion of “significance”: “a liberty is more or less significant depending on whether it is more or less essentially involved in, or is a more or less necessary institutional means to protect, the full and informed and effective exercise of the moral powers”.

This is a particularly interesting formulation. Not only does it abandon the austere “only restrict liberty for liberty’s sake” position which Hart had found so problematic; it also suggests a metric of sorts for comparing different liberties, without the need to resort to ideas of fungible Liberty-stuff. The good, for societies, is the general, informed and effective exercise by individuals of the powers to co-operate reasonably and seek what they consider to be the good rationally. The basic liberties, having been defined as preconditions for this social good, should be maximised to the extent that doing so tends to promote it – and adjusted relative to one another to the extent that these adjustments promote it.

I think this is an important – nay, significant – addition, which goes a long way towards fleshing out the idea of a resolvable conflict between basic liberties. However, some of the credit for it should probably go to Hart, whose criticisms are not so much answered by it as conceded; arguably they were unanswerable within Rawls’s framework as it stood.

Hart on Rawls – 1

In his paper on A Theory of Justice, Hart put forward five queries, all of which Rawls (some years later) responded to directly; I’ll incorporate some comment on Rawls’s responses as we go along.

Hart’s questions can be summarised under the following headings.

  1. Liberty or liberties? Is Rawls talking about a single quality of liberty which takes multiple forms, or about multiple discrete liberties? If it’s the latter, what are they and where do they come from – and what implications does Rawls’s selection of specific liberties have for his model?
  2. Restricting liberty for liberty’s sake Rawls argues that the only justification for limiting a liberty is an overall extension of liberties. What issues does this raise in terms of resolving potential conflicts between liberties?
  3. Restricting liberty for harm’s sake Rawls appears not to grant that liberties should sometimes be limited for harm-related as well as liberty-related reasons. Is this sustainable?
  4. Choosing (more) liberty Rawls argues that subjects in the original position would, in their own interest, tend to choose more rather than less extensive liberties. Given the potential adverse effects of liberties extended to the whole of society, is this valid?
  5. The priority of liberty Following on from the previous point: Rawls appears to believe that, all else being equal, subjects in the original position would choose a quantum of liberty over a quantum of material benefit. Is this an unstated presupposition on Rawls’ part? How is our perception of his model affected if this is granted?

For reasons of space and time, in this post I’ll only address the first of these. (Whatever else you can say about Hart, his writing is extraordinarily good to think with – particularly when he’s got something as substantial as A Theory of Justice to chew on.)

Liberty or liberties?
This may be little more than a textual quibble. Rawls’s response (in “The Basic Liberties and Their Priority”) can certainly be read in this way:

the equal basic liberties in the first principle of justice are specified by a list … No priority is assigned to liberty as such, as if the exercise of something called “liberty” has a pre-eminent value and is the main if not the sole end of political and social justice. … Hart noted, however, that in A Theory of Justice I sometimes used arguments and phrases which suggest that the priority of liberty as such is meant; although, as he saw, this is not the correct interpretation

Rawls goes on to characterise the ‘basic liberties’ as (in crude terms) means to an end rather than ends in themselves – the point is not to achieve an equal distribution of liberties for its own sake but to establish the conditions of possibility for the collective construction of a just society and for collective deliberation on ideas of the good. Rawls proposes an equal distribution of basic liberties not as an end state, but because it is among those conditions of possibility – or, perhaps, a necessary condition for the eventual development of those conditions of possibility. We are a long way from a utilitarian framework of the maximisation of capital-L Liberty, in other words.

I’m not sure that this disposes of Hart’s comments, though. The question concerns the fungibility of a generic liberty (I’ll refer to this as Liberty) – or, to put it another way, the commensurability of distinct liberties. Declining to specify an optimum scheme of basic liberties, Rawls argues that multiple alternative configurations or schemes of liberties may be equally valid. However, this implies that a restriction of one liberty may be compensated by an expansion of another, which as a minimum implies that different combinations of liberties may have the same beneficial effect. The model does not require simple commensurability between liberties (a bit more freedom from arbitrary arrest is worth a bit less freedom of expression). However, it does seem to imply that Liberty is somewhere in the background, being enhanced by the expansion of one liberty and reduced by the restriction of another. At least, it suggests an underlying resource of interchangeable Liberty-stuff, such that – given satisfactory levels of two different liberties – the overall settlement could only be improved by increasing one without lessening the other. If Liberty is seen as a single state or goal, approached in different ways through the instantiation of different liberties (each producing its own contribution of Liberty-stuff), it follows that some individual liberties may be much less effective in its realisation than others; some may even be expendable. This is the case even if we know what we mean by Liberty.

A realised state of Liberty is (more or less by definition) unknown to us, however. It’s safe to assume that liberties we have not considered may deserve a much more prominent place in our thought and action. In this context, Hart has an interesting passage on Rawls’s comments on lifestyle-related freedoms – in sexual conduct, drug and alcohol use, and so on – which he does not elevate to the level of a basic liberty. This may be explained by referring back to the civic focus of the basic liberties – seen as preconditions for the development of a just community rather than as individual liberties tout court – although the idea that sexual identity is irrelevant to public deliberation was not universal even in 1973.

Conversely, some of what we now consider to be liberties may well be irrelevant to the achievement of Liberty, or even counter-productive. Citing Rawls’s reference to a ‘principle of greatest equal liberty’, Hart refers to a Kantian model of universal freedom under a common law advanced by Herbert Spencer. Spencer’s critics, including Henry Sidgwick, pointed out that the institution of private property represents a stumbling-block for any pure theory of freedom: in the simplest form it represents a hard limit to individual freedom, expanding the freedom of the owner and reducing that of everyone else. (In less simple forms, private property brings with it inherited wealth, the accumulation of capital and wage labour, all of which bring their own forms of unfreedom.) Spencer’s response to this critique was to admit its force and revise his model, arguing that the greatest equal liberty would only be attainable when all property was held in common.

The value of the right to property in Rawls’s model is circumscribed, inasmuch as there is no basic right to individual ownership of the means of production: a ‘Rawlsian’ society may have an entirely state-owned economy. However, Rawls resists Spencer’s move, including the right to own personal property in his brief list of basic liberties. This is certainly justified on pragmatic (and on Pragmatic) grounds, making his model seem less utopian – and hence more useful to think with – than Spencer’s. Whether the liberty to own property (or other discrete liberties) can be justified on other grounds is less clear. As I have argued, although Rawls treats his basic liberties as discrete and distinct, to the extent that they can be balanced against one another there must be a Liberty behind the curtain which they jointly make it possible to approach – or at least a Liberty-stuff which they each in their different ways produce.

If this is the case, the basic liberties are not fundamental, but different aspects or facets of the production of fungible Liberty-stuff, or of the approach to an ineffable Liberty. And if that’s the case, clearly Rawls’s list can’t be taken as definitive; the possibility that it might need to be lengthened, and – more disruptively – the possibility that it might be appropriate to trade down one or more of our current list altogether, can’t be avoided. Might an equal distribution of basic liberties be achievable on the basis of a Fourierian phalanstery, designed to guarantee freedom from want, idleness and anomie, but not too great for political and personal liberties? And if not, why not? To be more precise: given that we’re objecting on philosophical rather than political grounds – political disagreements start some way down the road and should be expressible within the framework we’re developing at this stage – the contention must be that the map of small-l liberties not only should not but cannot be redrawn to that extent. But how can we justify that belief without recourse to political arguments?

One superficially attractive argument justifying a Rawlsian list of basic liberties – and countering ‘fungible Liberty-stuff’ and ‘ineffable Liberty’ arguments – runs like this. Let’s suppose that, somewhere out there in concept-space, there is such a thing as Liberty, although we don’t know what it looks like. However, we do have an idea what freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience and the rest of them look like. Moreover, we know they’re all valuable: we may be open to the striking of different balances between different liberties, even (perhaps) to the point of suspending one so as to preserve another, but we know that any solution which dispenses with a particular liberty altogether is a bad solution. (At least, it’s a solution with at least one bad feature – that one – and we want to avoid bad features in our solutions.) The difference between ‘balancing discrete liberties’ and ‘fungible Liberty-stuff’ models, in other words, is that the former provides a backstop, or several backstops: these liberties are things we know to be valuable, so we know that no solution in which any one of them is traded off entirely can be satisfactory.

The trouble with this argument is that it’s circular, and rather a tight circle at that. (Why shouldn’t we think in terms of fungible Liberty-stuff? Bad outcomes would result. Why would the outcomes be bad? Because there is no fungible Liberty-stuff.) However, it points the way to an argument or group of arguments which, while they lack the logical closure of this one, may be more persuasive. In its weakest form, the argument draws attention to the fact that Rawls uses a list of basic liberties at a fairly early stage in the development of the argument of A Theory of Justice - not to mention an early stage in the development of the ideal framework of social relations proposed in the book. Perhaps the choice of a list of basic liberties, and scepticism about that choice, are not positions which can usefully be counterposed in argument but simply alternative starting-points, to be judged primarily by their fruits. In other words, to the extent that Rawls makes it work, it works, and challenges at this foundational level are little more than doodling in the margin – or signs that the person putting the challenge may be reading the wrong book (“Aeschylus is so sexist!” – English student, Cambridge (overheard)).

A stronger version of the same argument would return to the first part of the circular argument set out above and plant its flag there. We do know what’s meant by each of Rawls’s basic liberties and we do know that each of them is valuable and therefore worth preserving, all else being equal. By contrast, nobody has ever seen Liberty, and we’ve got no compelling reason to believe in the existence of Liberty-stuff. Direct experience tells us about basic liberties; only human ingenuity tells us about Liberty, and we know how unreliable human ingenuity can be. The alternative to a conservative reliance on the liberties we know, on this argument, is not philosophically-grounded radicalism but reckless concept-mongering. To put it another way, trading a known basic liberty for a speculative increase in Liberty-stuff would be an irresponsible gamble. (Another criticism of Rawls, which I’ll come to in the next post, is that he’s not conservative enough in this respect.)

At its strongest, this argument would take direct aim at the shrouded numinosity of Liberty, asking whether we really have any reason to think there’s anything there. Perhaps the basic liberties have no more in common than a sandwich without mustard and a dog without a lead. Or rather (cutting off a potentially interesting but irrelevant line of questioning), perhaps we have no need to think of the basic liberties as having any properties in common in order to group them together. Perhaps, rather than working on the assumption that there is something positive and theoretically realisable called Liberty, we should think of the basic liberties as a group of absences which we hold to be significant and valuable – just as nitrogen and carbon dioxide share the common property of not being oxygen, rather than that of being saturated with phlogiston. This would, of course, leave open the question of whether Rawls’s list is the right list of basic liberties, but it would make the task of amending the list much more challenging.

Hart’s second criticism… but enough! Not sure how long this series is going to be; all I can say is that the next post will definitely address at least one of the remaining four arguments.

Earthbound skyhooks: Rawls and Dworkin

I’ve been wondering what it is that underlies my difficulties with both Dworkin and Rawls. After reading Ely’s paper on Dworkin, in particular, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an American thing. By which I don’t mean that it’s a legacy of of trends in American philosophy, enduringly marked by the influence of Emersonian Transcendentalism on one hand and Dewey’s Pragmatism on the other – although these are both distinctly alien to the British temperament, not least in their common emphasis on the unchallengeable meaningfulness of subjective experience. The history of American legal philosophy is similarly idiosyncratic, from a British standpoint. Hart characterises American legal theory as oscillating between the Realists’ “nightmare” of complete indeterminacy and entirely judge-made law, at one extreme, and Dworkin’s “noble dream” of a seamless web of laws and legal principles at the other. (Although on reflection the opposition may be more apparent than real. Dworkin pictures legal decisions being made by an omniscient judge called Hercules, who synthesises all the law there is based on the best and most appropriate principles. If Hercules is to be anything more than a figure of speech, somebody actually has to play that role and, in practice, make law. And in practice, as Ely points out, Dworkin’s own footwork is as nimble as any Realist’s.)

So if American philosophers, and legal philosophers, tend in their different ways to approach the world in a wide-eyed spirit of “how does this look to me, here, now?”,  you can see how that might grate on a British ear. (I’m flashing back to my only attempt to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I gave up at the point when the book’s teenage protagonist starts angrily disproving Plato – I was a teenager myself at the time, but I wasn’t buying that. See also Ayn Rand.)

But the point about Rawls and Dworkin is a bit different. Take Ely’s (instructive and entertaining) paper on Dworkin: it begins by asking, not how Dworkin can justify opposing racial discrimination while supporting affirmative action, but how he can justify the opinion that the decision in DeFunis v. Odegaard should be upheld as constitutional while that in Sweatt v. Painter should not. Dworkin was working (as was Ely) in the specific field of US constitutional law, and this gives his work a particular character. The task is not – as it might be for a British legal philosopher – to trace the development of a legal principle through its various imperfect expressions (in legislation and in court rulings), but to work with two distinct sets of ideas. On one hand there is the ideal – whatever the philosopher him- or herself holds to be just, true and good, e.g. the principle that government should be empowered to limit working hours or that heterosexuality should not be treated as compulsory. On the other there is: the Constitution. On one hand, the skyhooks of philosophical idealism (in both senses of the word); on the other, the Founding Fathers and what they thought was appropriate – or, more realistically, the end result of what they variously put forward as appropriate and collectively agreed not to strike out as inappropriate – to the needs of an eighteenth-century settler republic. Find an approximation to A somewhere in the text of B and you’re made. Find not-A (the exclusion or denial of A) in the text of B and you’ve got a job to do. Either way, the task at hand is not, in practice, to bring out anything immanent to the law but to knit together these two enormously disparate sources. You can’t work without a sense of what seems right to you, here, now, but at the same time you can’t work without reference to the text of the US Constitution, or the plausibly imputed intentions of its authors (or some more complex reading). Earthbound skyhooks.

This background doesn’t apply directly to Rawls (who WNAL), but it does seem to relate to something I find extraordinarily difficult in his thinking – and which, I think it’s fair to say, Hart struggled with as well. I understand the image of the ‘original position’, with individuals collectively deciding on the shape of society behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ as to who they are, what aptitudes and preferences they have and what role they would have in the eventual society. From this it is possible to derive a ‘general conception of justice’, representing the principles the parties to the original position would choose. So far so good: these are good tools to think with. But when Rawls goes on to say (here I’m quoting Hart quoting A Theory of Justice) that the general conception would mandate that

All social values, liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect, are to be distributed equally unless an equal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage.

I feel like I’ve wandered into the wrong class. “Er, Professor? Did you say ‘wealth’ just now? Did you say, er, ‘income‘?” (Benign smile from professor. Brighter students shake their heads and tut wearily – hey, it’s a Trot, just what we needed…) We’re on a pretty high plane of abstraction, up there behind the veil of ignorance, but apparently money isn’t one of the things we’re higher than. Nor, it turns out, is politics. One of Rawls’s basic liberties – those liberties which (in Hart’s words) are “identified by the parties in the original position … as essential for the pursuit of their ends, whatever their ends turn out to be” – is the right to run for elected public office. In fact – and at this point I very nearly gave up trying to understand Rawls, even with the aid of Hart – we haven’t even left political procedure behind (beneath?) us: “when the parties in the original position have chosen the principles of justice, they move to a constitutional convention … [where] they choose a constitution and establish the basic rights of citizens”.

I’m feeling dizzy – pass me the Schutz.

The puppet exists and acts merely by the grace of the scientist; it cannot act otherwise than according to the purpose which the scientist’s wisdom has determined it to carry out. Nevertheless, it is supposed to act as if it were not determined but could determine itself. A total harmony has been pre-established between the determined consciousness bestowed upon the puppet and the pre-constituted environment within which it is supposed to act freely, to make rational choices and decisions. This harmony is possible only because both, the puppet and its reduced environment, are the creation of the scientist. And by keeping to the principles which guided him, the scientist succeeds, indeed, in discovering within the universe, thus created, the perfect harmony established by himself.

Better. And breathe.

Rawls – like Dworkin – takes what appears to be a very different and much more worldly approach than a frank utopian like Nozick, but on inspection there’s something quite different – and stranger – going on than a simple opposition between utopianism and realism. The difference between Nozick and Rawls isn’t that Nozick built castles in the air; it’s that when Rawls built his castles in the air, he built them on the ground.

I’ll explain. The thing is, when real people hold a real constitutional convention, all kinds of strange and unpredictable things happen: few could have anticipated the respective roles played by the Partito Comunista Italiano and the centrist Partito Socialista dei Lavoratori Italiano in formulating the Italian law on divorce, for example. (I talk about this in my book.) When imaginary people who don’t know who they are decide on their general conception of justice, the philosopher can know exactly what happens – because it’s not actually a thing that does happens, or can happen: it’s just a way of talking about the factors which in reality hinder the adoption of a conception of justice acceptable to all, and ex negativo what the features of that conception of justice would be. So, as for what happens when imaginary people who don’t know who they are hold a constitutional convention… my head hurts. The question seems meaningless, or badly-formed – as if one were to ask what would happen if dogs started demanding the vote. I spy earthbound skyhooks.

But enough about me – let’s talk about the greatest legal philosopher of the twentieth century, and what he thought of John Rawls.

Hart, Nozick, Dworkin (in that order)

There was an old person of Ware,
Who rode on the back of a bear:
When they ask’d, – ‘Does it trot?’–
He said ‘Certainly not!
He’s a Moppsikon Floppsikon bear!’
- Edward Lear

Another couple of notes on current reading.

Herbert Hart’s essays “Between utility and rights” and “Rawls on liberty and its priority” make some interesting critical points on Nozick, Dworkin and Rawls – to be precise, the Nozick of Anarchy, State and Utopia, the Dworkin of Taking Rights Seriously and the Rawls of A Theory of Justice. I’ll cover Nozick (again) and Dworkin in this post, Rawls in a separate post.

Hart’s comments on Nozick are a bit less knockabout than the comments I mentioned in the previous post, but no more favourable. Hart presents ASU as one long series of exercises of the definitional fiat: if you define the right to own property as fundamental (and not, say, the right to life), and if you define taxation as logically equivalent to forced labour – one of several hyperbolical flourishes which Nozick seems to use both for effect and in earnest, in a “ha ha only serious” sort of way – then it follows that only the most minimal of minimal states can be legitimate, and so on. (Hence Nozick’s iconic status with right-Libertarians and other anti-state economic liberals. To be fair, Nozick’s model also has some far from conservative implications when it comes to present-day property ownership, given that only freely-undertaken transfers of title are treated as legitimate – and this with a fairly demanding definition of ‘free’.) If you define your terms thus and so, in other words, the model you build will give the conclusions you’re looking for. I don’t know if Hart ever read Schutz, but reading this paper I was strongly reminded of this passage, which forms the conclusion to Schutz’s essay “Common sense and scientific interpretation of human action”:

The relationship between the social scientist and the puppet he has created reflects to a certain extent an age-old problem of theology and metaphysics, that of the relationship between God and his creatures. The puppet exists and acts merely by the grace of the scientist; it cannot act otherwise than according to the purpose which the scientist’s wisdom has determined it to carry out. Nevertheless, it is supposed to act as if it were not determined but could determine itself. A total harmony has been pre-established between the determined consciousness bestowed upon the puppet and the pre-constituted environment within which it is supposed to act freely, to make rational choices and decisions. This harmony is possible only because both, the puppet and its reduced environment, are the creation of the scientist. And by keeping to the principles which guided him, the scientist succeeds, indeed, in discovering within the universe, thus created, the perfect harmony established by himself.

Defining people as independent property-owners – rather than, say, as interdependent community-builders – Nozick succeeds (indeed) in discovering within the universe, thus created, the perfect harmony established by himself.

But perhaps this isn’t the worst thing a political philosopher can do. To be more precise, for me this sort of frankly other-worldly (u-topian) system-building isn’t the most difficult or annoying thing a political philosopher can do. If Nozick stacked the deck – or rather, substituted a pack of cards of his own design – it’s no more than Marx did. What I find far harder to deal with is an approach taken by both Rawls and Dworkin (what little I’ve read of them), which I’d characterise as a kind of mundane idealism. It’s not that they don’t have ideas for a better world, or that they don’t build systems – Rawls in particular could never be accused of either of those failings. It’s that the ideas they have, and the systems they build, are tethered to (their) contemporary social conditions in ways I find unpredictable, arbitrary and unjustified. Marx had his blind spots – Kate Soper said once that when Marx dreamed of being able to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner“, she wanted to know who had made the dinner – but the human fundamentals he starts from are pretty fundamental (they don’t include money, for a start). Both Rawls and Dworkin seem to bob back and forth between blank-slate system-building and the most cautious, considered, Overton window realism, in a way which (for me) makes them very hard to get to grips with. The effect is to build an ideal world on some curiously unexamined foundations – as if to say that, come the revolution, we could spend the morning hunting and the afternoon lobbying our MP, then rear cattle in the evening and write a letter to the Guardian after dinner.

Hart wasn’t a Marxist – and he certainly wasn’t a utopian – so these aren’t exactly his criticisms of Rawls or Dworkin. But they’re not a million miles off. In Taking Rights Seriously, Dworkin presents individual rights in terms of the need to guarantee equal respect for all. Rights are thus a brake or side-constraint on the utilitarian pursuit of the common good; Dworkin refers specifically to ‘anti-utilitarian rights’. The idea is not simply that utilitarianism may sacrifice any individual’s freedom and well-being for the greater good of society, and that inviolable individual rights will prevent this happening; the problems with this superficially attractive idea were pointed out long ago (see previous post). Dworkin’s argument starts further down the line, conceding that some freedoms should in fact be sacrificed for the good of society, but maintaining that others should not – as we do when we argue that teachers should be free to punish children in their care but not to use physical force; or, that employers should be free to terminate employment after a disciplinary offence, but not to do so on the grounds of religion or ethnicity. In making statements like these, Dworkin argues, we are effectively mapping out a set of (anti-utilitarian) rights. But what are the boundaries of this set of rights and how can they be identified?

At this point I would be inclined to shrug and misquote Harold Macmillan – “Politics, dear boy, politics”. (Or – stretching the Macmillan image a bit – “Struggle, dear boy, struggle”.) Dworkin, who was made of sterner stuff, argued that the rights which should be protected are those which would qualify on utilitarian grounds – or (what amounts to the same thing) those which would gain majority support in a free vote – under certain conditions. The key condition is that the preferences to be considered in the utilitarian argument – or (less straightforwardly) the preferences on the basis of which votes would have to be cast in order to be valid – are self-directed; other-directed preferences would count for nothing. So, for example, “All in favour of making Wesleyan Methodism the state religion” is (arguably) self-directed but wouldn’t pass. “All in favour of freedom of worship for you and your family” is self-directed and would pass. “All in favour of denying freedom of worship to Wesleyan Methodists” might pass, but it’s other-directed and so shouldn’t be allowed to. Hence, freedom of worship is an anti-utilitarian right. If other-directed preferences are allowed to count, Dworkin argued, the effect is tantamount to double-counting: I’m not only getting what I want (freedom for me) but negating someone else’s vote for what they want (no freedom for Wesleyan Methodists). On the other hand, if other-directed preferences are not expressed (or even felt) – if nobody, or hardly anybody, wants to deny anyone freedom of worship in the first place – the right ceases to be anti-utilitarian, fades into the background and ultimately ceases to exist. If you can get the same result by referring to “rights”, “common sense” and “the way things are done”, few people will choose the first option – or have any need to.

Hart finds all of this puzzling. (As an aside, the more I read Hart the more I envy anyone who knew him – let alone anyone who had him as a supervisor. I imagine that his expressions of puzzlement were a warning sign that you would come to fear, or relish.) The idea that rights – not the expression or effective assertion of rights, but the rights themselves – are time- and place-dependent is a stumbling-block; as Hart points out, this would mean that citizens of the most liberal and empowering society would have the fewest rights, which seems counter-intuitive to say the least. Hart’s argument focuses mainly on the (metaphorical?) image of double-counting and the idea of other-directed preferences, both of which he finds to be much more slippery, and harder to generalise, than Dworkin acknowledged. The idea of double-counting, in fact, he simply finds incoherent, once it’s generalised beyond simple examples of policies which explicitly disadvantage a targeted group – do we add one for every individual (other than the voter him or herself) who is either benefited or disadvantaged by a vote, since our vote counts for one extra vote for or against their interests? (And if so, how many valid – single-counted – votes would be left?) Hart finds the broader idea of other-directed preferences more substantial but just as problematic. He notes (using slightly different terms) that Dworkin would count a heterosexual voter’s opposition to gay rights as an other-directed preference; he then asks why, if the same voter came round to supporting gay rights, this preference would not also be considered ‘other-directed’ and hence inadmissible.

Two answers seem to be available, both difficult to argue. Hart’s own conclusion is that discounting positive other-directed preferences in this way would be absurd. We could theorise this position by argue that other-directed preferences should be seen as admissible – and, perhaps, that they should not be seen as other-directed – when their tendency is to promote overall equality of respect. The problem with this argument is that it relies on smuggling substantive ideas of the good back into an argument which purports to float free of them. Which is to say, the concept of equality of respect does not, in itself, give us the means to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples of the ‘other-directed preference’. Shaw’s inversion of the Golden Rule – “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They may have different tastes.” – is glib and shallow, but it remains (annoyingly) pertinent. If I believed that human flourishing was best secured through the institution of heterosexual monogamy, I could argue that those social arrangements which promote it pay the most respect to all individuals, however uninterested in that institution they might be at the moment. Encouraging the expression of homosexual feelings would then be a disrespectful other-directed preference, despite its superficial liberalism: it would express the contemptuous view that some people were unable to overcome their base and self-destructive urges – as if to say that the liberal response to alcoholism was to set alcoholics free to drink themselves to death. Equally, it could be argued that laws mandating maximum working hours or a minimum wage are not founded on respect for the worker (or self-respect for oneself as worker) but on other-directed disrespect for the employers who would be inconvenienced by them – a prejudice against business which should not be given consideration. And so on.

Alternatively – and more consistently with the letter of Dworkin’s argument – we could argue that even altruistic other-directed preferences should not be counted: that only the preferences of those directly affected should be taken into consideration. The problem with this approach is that it would delegitimate social solidarity among anyone whose shoe didn’t pinch in exactly the same place, depoliticising rights discourse to a disabling extent. It would, for example, make it inadmissible for supporters to advance the rights of a group whose members were not themselves demanding them – a familiar scenario in the context of groups as disparate as children in care, migrant workers and abused women. Something like this does in fact appear to have been Dworkin’s position, although he avoided its more alarming implications by supplementing his modified version of preference utilitarianism with deontological arguments. In other words, he held that altruistic other-directed preferences should not in fact be counted as individual preferences, but that they should be attended to as the expression of views which might be independently (‘ideally’) correct, irrespective of how many or how few people held them. By this point, though, we are not so much smuggling an idea of the good into a utilitarian argument as moving out of the utilitarian argument altogether to shack up with an idea of the good.

Whichever way you take it, Dworkin’s argument against other-directed preferences seems to boil down to saying that majority votes – and utilitarian greater-good arguments – are problematic when they justify things that are wrong; the question of what actually is wrong remains open (and, I would add, political). It could be argued that these considerations of value pluralism have nothing to do with equality of respect – in other words, that these are arguments we would have been having anyway – but in fact that’s the point: Dworkin’s metric gives us no guidance precisely when we need it. Hart concludes by casting doubt on whether it is possible to derive anything of substance from the notion of equality of respect: after all, a law forbidding the practice of any religion is just as equal in its respect for belief as a law allowing complete religious freedom. (Both have an impact on the lives of all believers – and no non-believers.) In terms of equal application, Hart adds ghoulishly, “kill everyone” is just as good a command as “kill no one”.

Dworkin replied to Hart’s criticisms, in a paper with the unhelpful title of “Is there a right to pornography?” (try googling “Dworkin pornography” and see what you get). I have read it – the section on Hart at least – but I’ve got to admit defeat. I’m honestly not sure what Dworkin was saying, although there seemed to be a certain amount of question-dodging and subject-changing going on. I can recommend John Hart Ely’s 1983 paper on the Dworkin/Hart exchange, “Professor Dworkin’s External/Personal Preference Distinction”; Ely engages much more closely with Dworkin than I have the energy for, but he ends up seeming equally unimpressed (“Professor Dworkin has led us a merry chase, but each of the alleys has proven blind”).

Hart seems to have found Rawls considerably more substantial than Dworkin; he praises A Theory of Justice highly. But issues remain.

Some baby! (Hart on Nozick)

…some bathwater!

Before today, it had never really occurred to me to wonder what Hart had made of Nozick. The answer, according to a 1976 address collected in Hart’s Essays in Jurisprudence and Philosophy, seems to be “not a lot”. Hart cites, with qualified approval, Bentham’s attack on the notion of absolute and inalienable rights as making any form of government impossible:

nothing that was ever called government ever was or could be in any instance exercised save at the expence of one or other of those rights … in as many instances as Government is ever exercised some one or other of these pretended unalienable rights is alienated

In Anarchy, State and Utopia, Hart argues,

Nozick raises precisely Bentham’s question and asks “How much room do individual rights leave for government?” What is astonishing is that Nozick also gives Bentham’s answer: No room except in an imaginary world. … he argues that granted a set of natural rights – such as the right not to be killed, assaulted, coerced, not to have property taken or destroyed, and not to be limited in the use of property – only a minimal form of state, the so-called “nightwatchman” state, whose functions are limited to the punishment of violations of such rights, can be legitimate.  Moreover, given those natural rights, even that minimal form of state could be justified only under conditions which Bentham never considered. Yet Bentham might be forgiven for failing to do so, for they are conditions produced out of Nozick’s lively imagination which are highly unlikely to be satisfied in the real as contrasted with the imaginary world.

Ouch.

The conditions in question are that the state should have arisen through individuals voluntarily joining a private protection association which might eventually achieve, without infringing any natural rights, dominance in a limited territory even if not everyone joined it. But all this seems indeed imaginary and and irrelevant in a world where states do not arise in that way.

Bentham was wrong, Hart argues, to dismiss all talk of rights as either utopian or trivial, and irrelevant either way – rights being either overriding constraints (which cannot possibly obtain in the real world) or interests to be balanced against others (and hence deserving no special consideration). But, Hart concludes,

I do not think we yet have a satisfactory theory showing how respect for such rights is to be combined with the pursuit of other values. Some theories seem to me to throw out the baby – that is basic rights compatible with each other and with government – with the bathwater of excessive rigidity. Other theories – perhaps Professor Nozick’s among them – do worse; they throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.

Perhaps it’s unfair to castigate Nozick for producing a model that was both utopian and inapplicable to the real world. It could equally be argued that, once having identified principles of justice from which an ideal model of society could be elaborated, declaring that the model was in fact a map of the world would be an anti-climax at best. There would be more critical mileage in going the whole utopian hog, the better to measure the distance between that model and our world as it is.

Ultimately this passage is probably less valuable as a knock-down critique of Nozick than as a demonstration of the importance of one’s starting-point. For Hart, a model of justice was first and foremost a model of justice as it was administered in the real world: if such a theory pointed us in the direction of greater, less compromised or better-distributed justice, so much the better, but its first hurdle was to fit the reality of justice as we knew it. In Hart’s view, by defining justice in terms of principles which could only be realised in Utopia, Nozick had succeeded only in severing his own ideal of justice from the common-or-garden justice about which other theorists wrote. There is a parallel here with Hart’s insistence on the existence of law in slave-holding regimes or in Nazi Germany (although these are separate arguments, clearly; Hart didn’t deny that those regimes were characterised by great injustice). For Hart, a theory of law which only covered the law in peaceful, egalitarian, democratic regimes – while excluding other contexts in which people recognised as lawyers practised something recognised as law – would not be stronger but weaker for it: any gain in coherence would be decisively outweighed by the loss of breadth.

Unlike Nozick, Hart didn’t define justice in terms of a more-or-less unrealised end-state – or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, he wasn’t very interested in looking at justice in those terms. Law, still less: he didn’t think in terms of law as its own self-description and its own regulative ideal – law consisting at once of the carrying-out of law-like practices in law-like ways, and as an ideal which was the more fully realised the more law-like that process was. In other words, he didn’t see law (or didn’t find it interesting or useful to see law) as providing the resources for its own immanent critique. But more on that another time.

Triggering the community

I’ve written a paper on anti-social behaviour and, in particular, the ‘Community Trigger’. It’s based entirely on published sources, so the conclusion is basically that somebody ought to do some proper research on this – I’m hoping to get some funding to do just that. In the mean time here’s the abstract and the references, in case anyone’s interested in the kind of stuff I’m doing at the moment (at least, the more policy-ish end of it; more skirmishes in the region of legal theory to come).

Noisy students, pro-life protesters and street football: How the Community Trigger has refined our understanding of anti-social behaviour

Abstract

This paper reviews the experience of the Community Trigger pilot schemes carried out in England in 2012 and 2013. The Community Trigger, now enacted in law, is a mechanism whereby people affected by anti-social behaviour (ASB) can request a review of their case, which has to be undertaken if repeated complaints have been made with an unsatisfactory response. The experience of the Community Trigger pilots offers a testing ground for different conceptions of ASB – considered variously as ‘neighbourhood disorder’, as ‘incivilities’ and as the actions of an ‘anti‑social minority’ – and for approaches to addressing ASB, based on different understandings of where authentic knowledge of ASB resides (with legislators, with local specialists or with the individuals affected). The pilots demonstrate wide variation among the areas involved, suggesting that different approaches to ASB and its management are likely to persist. Given the inherent variability of ASB – considered as ‘context-dependent’ disorder – the persistence of local and regional variation is likely to pose challenges for measurement of ASB and of the success of any centrally-driven initiatives to address it.

References

Bannister, J. and Kearns, A. (2013), “The function and foundations of urban tolerance: Encountering and engaging with difference in the city”, Urban Studies 50(13): 2700-17.
Blair, A. (2006), speech at Downing St, 10 January; online at <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4600156.stm&gt; (last accessed 19/6/2014).
Bottoms, A. (2009), “Disorder, order and control signals”, British Journal of Sociology 60(1): 49‑55.
Bryant, R. and Egerton, J. (2013), Manchester City Council Community Trigger Assessment Report, Manchester: Manchester City Council.
Castleton, P. (2013), Brighton and Hove Community Trigger Trials Assessment Report, report to Brighton and Hove Community Safety Forum, 10 June.
Cocker, S., Hunn, P. and Eden. A. (2013), Community Trigger Trial – Boston Borough Assessment Report, Boston: Boston Borough Council.
Crawford, A. (1999), “Questioning appeals to community within crime prevention and control”, European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 7(4): 509-530.
Donoghue, J. (2008), “Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) in Britain: Contextualizing risk and reflexive modernization”, Sociology 42(2): 337-355.
Duff, R. (2003), Punishment, Communication, and Community, Oxford: OUP.
Edwards, P. (2013a), “Anti-social behaviour, harassment and the context-dependent victim”, Nottingham Law Journal 22: 119-32
Edwards, P. (2013b), “How the news was made: The Anti-Social Behaviour Day Count, newsmaking criminology and the construction of anti-social behaviour”, Critical Criminology 21(2): 211-25
Home Office (2013), Empowering communities, protecting victims: Summary report on the community trigger trials, London: Home Office.
Innes, M. (2004), “Signal crimes and signal disorders: notes on deviance as communicative action”, The British Journal of Sociology 55(3):335-55.
Jackson, J. and Bradford, B. (2009), “Crime, policing and social order: on the expressive nature of public confidence in policing”, British Journal of Sociology 60(3):493-521.
Jaconelli, J. (1995), “Context-Dependent Crime”, Criminal Law Review 10: 771-82.
Kearns, A. and Bannister, J. (2009), “Conceptualising tolerance: paradoxes of tolerance and intolerance in contemporary Britain”, Italian Journal of Sociology of Education 1(2):126‑147.
MacDonald, S. (2006), “A suicidal woman, roaming pigs and a noisy trampolinist: Refining the ASBO’s definition of ‘anti-social behaviour’”, Modern Law Review 69(2): 183-213.
Michael, A. (1998), Standing Committee B, Crime and Disorder Bill (House of Lords), 5 May (morning).
Millie, A. (2006), “Anti-social behaviour: Concerns of minority and marginalised Londoners”, Internet Journal of Criminology; online at <http://www.internetjournalofcriminology.com/Millie%20-%20Anti-social%20Behaviour.pdf&gt; (last accessed 19/6/2014).
Millie, A. (2008), “Anti-social behaviour, behavioural expectations and an urban aesthetic”, British Journal of Criminology 48(3): 379-394.
Nowakowski, A. (2013), Richmond’s Community Trigger Pilot Assessment Report, Richmond: Richmond upon Thames Community Safety Partnership.
Prior, D. (2005), “Civil renewal and community safety: Virtuous policy spiral or dynamic of exclusion?”, Social Policy & Society 4(4): 357-367.
Simester, A. and von Hirsch, A. (2002), “Rethinking the offense principle” Legal Theory 8(3): 269-295.
von Hirsch, A. and Simester, A. (eds.) (2006), Incivilities: Regulating offensive behaviour, Oxford: Hart.
West Lindsey District Council (2013), Community Trigger Trial Assessment Report, West Lindsey: West Lindsey District Council.

The gate to the law

The other day I was reading what I believe is the latest (and trust is the last) instalment in the long and almost epistolary debate between Matthew Kramer and Nigel Simmonds on the inherent morality of the law. (Nothing to say about that at the moment.) After following a few footnote references a song came unbidden to mind:

O Lord, won’t you buy me a sub to Jurisprudence?
The papers of interest are so multitudin’s!
Worked hard all my lifetime – ain’t no Homo Ludens -
So Lord, won’t you buy me a sub to Jurisprudence?

Or, more wistfully,

I often dream of reading Jurisprudence
I recommend it to selected students
I dream of it constantly
Accessed through the British Library,
Oxford or Cambridge,
Or Birmingham…

My institution, in other words, doesn’t subscribe to the journal where some of the key debates in a topic that fascinates me are being carried on. (As indeed most institutions don’t – the list above is exhaustive as far as I know.) There’s a simple solution, of course; it’s called an inter-library loan. The only problem is the opportunity cost – by which I don’t mean the (fairly trivial) effort of going to the library and filling in a form, but the fact that deciding to do so would inevitably remind me of all the reading I’ve already got queued up (physical books included). So for now those papers by Simmonds, Gardner, Finnis et al are just going to have to wait.

Getting introspective for a moment, Jurisprudence and its non-availability are a bit of a Russian doll for me. A series of worries and fears are nested behind my resentment of not being able to get hold of it: the suspicion that if I had those papers I wouldn’t get round to reading them; and that if I did it would just be an intellectual hobby – I wouldn’t actually be able to use them, e.g. by writing anything (or anything I could get published); and that, if I wrote something properly theoretical and got it published (which is a big if), I still wouldn’t be in the kind of job where writing this kind of stuff was expected and approved. But perhaps those aren’t independent worries; perhaps it’s just an inner voice saying yeah, but it wouldn’t work… And actually that’s precisely what I don’t know. (More to the point, I don’t know how going down that route would work, or what precisely it would lead to.) So perhaps I just need to give it a go and see what happens. Including an ILL for an issue or two of Jurisprudence – at least, once I’ve got through the backlog.

I’m also wondering about further qualifications. Getting a Graduate Diploma in Law would take two years of fairly intensive part-time study (where the year runs October-June). I could do the same thing by taking Open University modules; this would take four years of what would also be fairly intensive part-time study (year running February to October). Comparing the OU option with the GDL, the prospect of taking twice as long for the same qualification at once attracts and repels me: it would be a good learning experience, but do I want to commit that much time and effort? There’s also the fact that, while getting some Law under my belt would suit me personally, it wouldn’t benefit me greatly in the job I’m actually doing – and doing the degree would make me ineligible for research funding from some sources, which would be a positive disadvantage.

Don’t know where I am with that; all comments welcome. In the mean time, here’s the abstract of a paper I’ve just had accepted for publication (Journal of Criminal Law):

New ASBOs for old?
The Anti Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) was designed as a civil/criminal hybrid, preventive in structure and with a largely undefined object. After 2002, legal challenges to the ASBO led to the use of justificatory arguments from cumulative effect, and to the introduction of new measures which offered to regulate anti social behaviour in more legally acceptable forms. The Coalition currently proposes to replace the ASBO with two new instruments: a post-conviction Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) and a wholly-civil ‘injunction to prevent nuisance and annoyance’ (IPNA). While the CBO and IPNA build on this history, it is argued that they do not represent a new approach to anti social behaviour so much as a continuation of the ASBO by other means.

And the abstract of a paper I’ve just submitted to a conference next year on “Penal law, abolitionism and anarchism” (feat. Joe Sim and Vincenzo Ruggiero):

Law after law? Abolitionism and the rule of law

Liberal legal theorists have argued that the law has an inherent morality (Simmonds 2007), making it an intrinsically valuable social project, and that the institutions and practices making up the rule of law encapsulate key virtues of the concept of law (Waldron 2008). However, the rule of law as we know it is predicated on two concepts which are alien to anarchist and abolitionist perspectives – the state, its authority ultimately guaranteed by unchallengeable coercive power, and its antagonist the rights-bearing, self-interested individual. Can we think in terms of the rule of law without invoking state coercion or competitive individualism? Is the morality of law an ideological construct specific to the era of capitalist competition, or does it embody ideals which would remain valuable in a society not predicated on capitalist economics and state coercion? If we assume that such a society would have its own (rule of) law, how do we envisage transitional or prefigurative forms of law? This paper suggests some provisional answers to these questions, drawing on contemporary jurisprudential debates and on studies of the alternative legalities imposed by gangs and ‘armed struggle’ groups.

Now I just need to write one explaining the connection between those two…

Footnote OTD

Ancient Athenians could not fetch beer from the fridge of the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University

- from note 15 to Nigel Simmonds (1995), “The analytical foundations of justice”, Cambridge Law Journal 54(2)

(In context it’s actually a very good point.)

Bavarian gentians

Not every man has felt the pure delight
- the un-self-conscious delight – of sitting forward
suddenly upright and alert, a swallow of beer
still coating the back of his throat as he sits forward
alert on the stained and punctured leather cushion
Detroit soul hanging in the air unheard… it is not
as I say, every man who has known
the unthought joy of budging forward, alert,
glass in hand or close by, saying aloud
(and none too quietly), “Are you on crack?”
addressing the query to a book about the law.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch… I’m currently reading A debate over rights, for the second and probably not the last time. Heaven knows if I’ll ever make a living – or even score a research grant – out of this stuff, but as reading matter goes I am really enjoying it.

More importantly, I’m liking the directions it’s leading me. To be perhaps more clear than I usually am on this topic, it’s been my conviction for a while that (firstly) there’s something deeply unsatisfactory – something less than fully or universally human – about models of subjecthood predicated on a Kantian model of the rights-bearing individual; and that (secondly) all currently available alternatives – whether they start from a utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits to society as a whole or from less hard-edged assertions of the rights of the ‘community’ – are even worse. We – particularly a Marxist ‘we’ – need something better than a Kantian liberal model of society as composed of individual bearers of jointly compossible rights, but in order to get there I believe we’ll need to wring the liberal model dry, or push it till it breaks. It’s going to be a big job – and, in fairness, reading Kramer et al in a pub may not seem like much of a contribution to it. But it is giving me food for thought in great quantities – even, or especially, those passages I strongly disagree with – which I appreciate greatly. Thanks again, Matthew and Nigel.

That would be an ecumenical matter

Small personal update. I’ve just spent two days on a bid-writing retreat, organised to support people working in Humanities departments at my university – criminologists (like me), sociologists, linguists, historians, geographers and a lawyer or two. ‘Retreat’ was the operative word – it was a very quiet two days, rather solitary in fact. This was very much thanks to the venue, a huge Victorian house run since the mid-70s by a Christian community. One door had a sign saying that the room beyond was reserved for quiet meditation; it turned out to be a large, light and well-furnished living room, in which I could have meditated quietly for hours or more. The atmosphere was scarcely any less tranquil when the room had been occupied by five people staring at laptops.

I had a bit of trouble with my bid. I got a permanent position in 2010 and applied myself fairly concentratedly to teaching for the next couple of years. Now that I’ve cleared a bit of time and headspace for research, I keep finding I’ve had a brilliant idea which somebody else has already researched or written about – very often within the last two years, infuriatingly enough. (Or, most infuriatingly of all, a brilliant idea which has superficial but obvious similarities to part of a research project that somebody else has carried out within the last couple of years. Not that I’m bitter.) Anyway, I ended up essentially ripping up my original idea and starting again – a productive but difficult process which can’t really be done while sitting in front of a laptop. Standing up is involved – pacing, ideally; there is generally speech, also, or muttering at the very least.

In search of a room to pace and mutter, I found myself in a sunroom on the first floor. I did some quite useful rethinking, then looked around and noticed the books. I’d seen a couple of bookcases around the place and taken a vague bibliophilic interest in the religious texts in them, but the books in the sunroom were something else. There were books in that room I hadn’t seen in five years – ten, even: books that I’d last seen on my parents’ bookshelves. (My father died in 2001, my mother in 2006; they were both pillars of the local church and had been all my life.) Then I noticed the chairs – two in particular out of the many armchairs in that one room (that house was extraordinarily well upholstered). They were old-style high-backed armchairs, well-used, in covers with a light-coloured William Morris-ish floral pattern. I’d seen chairs covered with that particular material before – specifically, I’d seen them in my parents’ living room. When we’d set about clearing the house there had been some discussion with a Christian group, although it didn’t come to anything (fire regulations); I wondered for a moment if some less discriminating charity had come back later and scooped up chairs and books and all. They would then need to have transported them to the other end of the country, though, which I realised was unlikely. It was an odd moment. At the end of the first chapter of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The unconsoled (very minor spoiler), the narrator looks around his Central European hotel room and is reminded momentarily of his boyhood bedroom, before being struck by the realisation that it is his boyhood bedroom – the room he remembers so fondly has been rebuilt in this distant city, especially for him. This was a bit too close to that scene for comfort.

But of course (I reminded myself) there are lots of armchairs out there covered with Morris-esque florals. And, when I really looked, it turned out that most of the books I’d recognised actually weren’t books I’d seen on my parents’ bookshelves – not within the last ten years, at any rate. They were books, and authors, like these:

Michel Quoist
Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)
Paul Tillich (The Courage to Be)
Don Cupitt
Rollo May’s Love and Will
The Truth of God Incarnate (this stood out a bit; it was written as a riposte to The Myth of ditto, which would have fitted much better but wasn’t there)
Bias to the Poor
Colin Morris (Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor)
The ‘Honest to God’ Debate (although not John Robinson’s Honest to God itself)
The New Inquisition (a critical commentary on the excommunication of Hans Küng)
a book taking a positive view of Taizé
a book taking a positive view of Pentecostalism

And now the trapdoor of memory really opened. Never mind ten years, these were books I hadn’t seen in thirty years or more; many were books I hadn’t even thought of in thirty years. They were still instantly familiar: they gave me the same kind of jolt of recognition that you get when you dream of meeting someone who’s died – “why did I think I’d forgotten you?”. (Even as I write it I’m struck by how eerie the simile is, but it is apt. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, and I think books are particularly rich in them.) Some of these were books that my parents had had in the house where I grew up, and turned out when they moved to Brighton in the mid-1980s; some were books that had been on the lending shelf in our local church, or on the freely-lent-from bookshelves in the Rectory, where the Rector’s wife used to keep open house for artists, musicians and local kids.

In short, as I looked around that room I was breathing the air of a certain kind of church in the 1970s (where ‘church’ means the community more than the building). I hadn’t realised how much I missed it. As well as being ecumenical as regards other Christians, being a Christian in a church like this meant being non-literalistic and generally non-doctrinaire on the Christian story itself. (When David Jenkins said that the Resurrection was “more than a conjuring trick with bones”, he was very much talking our language: as if to say, we’ll concede the flesh-and-blood resurrection if that means we can talk about what the Resurrection actually means. Shame it didn’t come across like that.) It meant not believing that you, or your church, had all the answers, or that anybody did (apart from God); it meant not worrying too much about being saved but believing that there was work to be done in this life (in the words of the Christian Aid motto, “We believe in life before death”). More specifically, it meant taking Jesus seriously when he talked about the eye of the needle and giving away your coat and the sheep and the goats. The Christians I met when I went away to university were all about Biblical literalism and accepting Jesus as your personal saviour; it was like going from seminars on number theory to being drilled in multiplication tables, badly. I never really went back to the church after that; I visited my parents’ new church in Brighton a few times and got to know the vicar (he preferred ‘priest’), but it wasn’t the same kind of church – higher, quieter, more doctrinally orthodox, less radical politically.

All of this is, of course, rather a long time ago; when you’re looking back at the age of 52, the people you had around you in your teens are often not there any more. Around 1979, the Rector moved on and was replaced by a new Rector (who didn’t much hold with the intellectual stuff and certainly didn’t hold with the ‘open house’ thing). Around 1984, my parents moved to Brighton. In the 1990s, the Rector died (fairly young, unexpectedly), and the new Rector retired (I don’t know who replaced him). The years since 2000 have seen the deaths of my father, the vicar in Brighton (who also died young and unexpectedly), my mother and the Rector’s widow. (My entire academic career to date has taken place in the same period, and most of it since my mother died – a disjuncture in time which made it particularly poignant to be faced by those books in that setting.) It’s as if the books had outlived their readers. Michel Quoist and Teilhard, Honest to God and Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor: names like these make up a picture, for me, but it’s not a picture I can easily check out with anyone else. Memory can be lonely, even when it’s supported by tangible things; perhaps especially then. Maybe that’s another, not too strained, reading of sunt lacrimae rerum – “these are the tears of things”: tears which the things keep to themselves until somebody strikes the rock and draws them out.

All this in a few minutes – it was a dense experience as well as an odd one – in between pacing and muttering. As for my bid, having abandoned something about subjective experiences of procedural justice, I came away with an idea about subjective experiences of the rule of law – much more exciting. (It actually is much more exciting as far as I’m concerned, which hopefully will make for a more persuasive bid; I should certainly be able to dedicate more of myself to it.) It would make a better story if I said I would now be conducting research on the inter-generational construction of non-denominational religious identities, or something, but reality is obdurate. Besides, I need to keep something for the blog.

What’s the life of a man? (5/5)

In this post I’m moving away from A Debate over Rights to develop some thoughts inspired by a couple of papers by John Gardner. I’m not going far from the book, though – the first section of this post is relevant to the question of how we conceptualise rights, while the second relates to the question of the morality of law (which two of the book’s authors have been debating for some time).

1. Oh you shouldn’t do that

The opening paragraph of John Gardner’s 1996 paper ‘Discrimination as Injustice’ makes an interesting claim about torture – the wrongness of torture, in particular.

Reasons of justice are reasons for or against altering someone’s relative position. The word ‘relative’ is of the essence here. One may have reasons to alter someone’s position which do not make any essential reference to anyone else’s position. For example, the fact that a prisoner is being tortured is reason enough by itself to write letters of protest, with the aim of improving the prisoner’s treatment. Torture is inhumane. But isn’t torture also unjust? Doesn’t one also have a reason of justice to protest? Perhaps. As part of one’s protest, one might relate the position of the torture victim to the position of other people (other prisoners, people of different political views, the torturers themselves, the torture victim’s victims, the government, etc). In that case one may be trying to give a reason of justice for the torture to desist. It may buttress the reason of humanity. But of course it may also fail to do so. The authorities inflicting the torture may accurately reply, in some cases, that they are inflicting it with impeccable justice. Yet still, on grounds of its inhumanity, the torture should cease, and the protests should go on if it does not.

Gardner returned to this point more recently, in his 2011 paper ‘What is tort law for? Part 1. The place of corrective justice’.

Norms of justice are moral norms of a distinctive type. They are norms for tackling allocative moral questions, questions about who is to get how much of what. Some people think of all moral questions, or at least all moral questions relevant to politics and law, as allocative. But that is a mistake. As a rule, allocative questions are forced upon us only when people make competing claims to assignable goods. Many morally significant goods, including many relevant to politics and law, are either not competed for or not assignable. They include goods such as living in a peaceful world and not being tortured. … Of course it does not follow that there are no questions of justice that bear on the resort to torture or on the quest for a peaceful world. The point is only that many moral questions about the resort to torture and the quest for a peaceful world are not questions of justice. If, for example, we say of someone who was tortured by the secret police that her treatment was unjust, she might well say, if her moral sensitivity has been left intact, that this misses the point and marginalizes her grievance. She is not complaining that she was the wrong person to be picked out for torture, that she was a victim of some kind of misallocation by the secret police, that she of all people should not have been tortured. She is complaining that torture should not have been used at all, against anyone. Her complaint is one of barbarity, never mind any incidental injustices involved in it.

Torture is inhumane or barbaric – there are other words we could use, such as ‘degrading’ or ‘brutalising’; the core meaning has to do with attacking or invading another person’s humanity or personhood. Morally, it should stop, both universally and in any given case – but it is not, of itself, unjust. The moral question raised by torture isn’t a question of allocating it justly. One distribution of torture may be prima facie less just than another – the torture of randomly-stopped motorists would arouse more outrage than the torture of convicted rapists – but the less unjust distribution is not less immoral. A regime which reserved torture for people found guilty of heinous crimes would still be morally repugnant. Any torture – for anyone – is bad torture; in an absolute sense, any torture – for anyone – is as bad as any other torture.

Gardner sets torture alongside position-relative justice, and the freely competing subjects of law-governed society, to make a point about the limits of allocative justice. No distribution of torture (or of absolute poverty, polluted air, reduced life-expectancy, etc) is more just than any other. This is both because torture is not a good to be appropriately allocated and, more importantly, because the absence of torture is not an assignable good and hence not subject to constraints of scarcity. The question of who should be exposed to torture, instead of the current victim, doesn’t arise. There is no reason, in principle, why there should not be enough non-torture for everyone – and, here and now, it will always be better if our actions do not add any more people to those already suffering it.

But there’s a bit more going on here than that. There are any many ills whose absence is not an assignable good. To put it another way, there are any number of areas in which life could in principle be made better for everyone, or (to put it in less ambitious terms) where making life better for one person doesn’t require making it worse for another: health, clean air, peace, Pettit’s ‘dominion’ (a condition of resilient non-intererference’). Depriving someone of a non-assignable good is morally wrong, without necessarily being unjust. Allocative thinking in a negative form may well be involved in the infliction of such an ill: it may be motivated precisely by the desire to improve one’s own relative position at the expense of the victim. However, allocative questions do not have to be involved in their rectification: there is in principle no shortage of clean air, so the harm of air pollution is not rectified by ensuring that the air the company directors have to breathe is equally polluted.

Actions of this type are, by definition, characterised by a lack of respect for the equal entitlements of others and ourselves. Since they don’t profit the person carrying them out (also by definition), they tend to have a character of gratuitous or vindictive malice. The definition does not, however, imply that such acts are all inhumane or barbaric. If I jammed my neighbour’s TV reception so that they were unable to receive BBC 4, this would certainly be a maliciously cruel act, but it would be a stretch to classify it as barbarity. Indeed, much of what tends to fall under the heading of anti-social behaviour consists precisely of the deliberate or reckless deprivation of others of non-assignable goods – goods like the ability to sleep undisturbed by noise or to walk to the shops unperturbed by vandalism. Depriving others of non-assignable goods is a bad thing to do, and there is no situation in which we should not, morally, strive to do less of it – but it is not generally barbaric or inhumane.

Obviously torture makes a much better example for Gardner’s purposes than anti-social behaviour, both because it’s more extreme and because it’s commonly carried out by state authorities rather than by next-door neighbours. But I think the use of torture as an example also points to a different argument about justice and moral wrongs. Consider the first sentence quoted above: “Reasons of justice are reasons for or against altering someone’s relative position.” Norms of justice, Gardner argues in the second extract, are appropriate for tackling those questions which we face “when people make competing claims to assignable goods”. There’s a fundamental concept of personhood lurking here: a person, we can infer, is someone whose position (however defined) can be measured relative to the positions of other people; someone who can successfully claim assignable goods; someone whose self-interested claims can compete with those of other people; and someone whose disputes with other people can be adjudicated, and whose relative position can be altered, through the process of law, in other words by applying public norms using socially recognised procedures. And – at the risk of sewing a shirt onto a button – a law-governed society is a society composed of such individuals; and when we say ‘law’, we mean the kind of law through which such a society, and such individuals, can govern themselves. Clearly, the terms Gardner used would not work well in a feudally-ordered society, or a society run along religiously-validated caste lines, or the small-c communist society which was to follow the withering-away of the socialist state. We are talking about a society composed of formally equal individuals, differently endowed with personal resources, but each capable of making claims to assignable goods; entitled to expect that those claims will be respected; and entitled to attempt to vindicate them through the law.

We can see how this model of personhood relates to an allocative model of justice by looking at some scenarios. If my neighbour encroaches on my back garden, I may sue him and let the courts adjudicate our competing claims to the assignable good behind my house. If he takes our dispute personally and steals my property or assaults me, justice is involved in a different sense. Restitution will certainly be required, bringing allocative justice into play; however, my neighbour is also transgressing in a more serious way, improving his relative position by socially disallowed means. Theft and personal violence can be seen as ways of gaining an unfair advantage or nobbling the competition. (Gardner also suggests that criminal justice is allocative in the sense that it turns on the correct allocation of the status of criminal, which seems valid if rather ingenious.)

What about if my neighbour gets his revenge by a more indirect route, swearing at me in the street or disturbing my rest with loud music (or jamming my BBC 4 signal)? In such a case, given that the good in question is non-assignable, justice in Gardner’s terms may not be involved. Even so, the courts are likely to take the view that my entitlement to a non-assignable good has been needlessly infringed. (Not that this is a simple proposition, as we can see if we remember Hohfeld. If I am entitled to quiet nights – and why should I not be? there is, in principle, no shortage – does this mean that I hold a privilege as against all my neighbours, with a correlative duty on each of their parts not to disturb my rest? Can this be generalised, to cover mutual obligations among neighbours and entitlements to other forms of domestic tranquillity? I think this would be very problematic. Make these duty/privilege relationships unwaivable and everyone involved would be encumbered with a vast array of duties to abstain from potentially disturbing behaviours. Make them waivable, on the other hand, and the effect would be to destroy the universality apparently offered by the discourse of rights: all we would do would be to translate different individuals’ widely varying levels of entitlement and grievance into the language of waived and unwaived rights.)

Setting these broader considerations aside, the main point here is that deliberate deprivation of a non-assignable good can be grasped in terms of (allocative) justice, essentially by assimilating it to the ‘unfair advantage’ model associated with criminal justice. Indeed, we could rework the ‘unfair advantage’ model itself in terms of the deprivation of a non-assignable good. Laws criminalising physical violence, for instance, can be seen as protecting the non-assignable good of bodily integrity. In terms of acquisitive crime, if individuals A, B and C are all planning to bid for a valuable object at an auction, but are prevented from doing so when I steal it, what I have deprived them of is precisely the non-assignable good of a fair competition. A similar argument could be developed for the theft of an article on sale, or (less directly) of something in private possession. (We can see here, incidentally, how far removed the principles of allocative justice are from any redistributive model of social justice; in allocative terms, mere ownership of a resource at a given point cannot be unjust. Allocative justice and social justice must always be in tension, this side of the revolution.)

The principle here is that the autonomous, self-interested individuals on which our legal model is predicated need – and hence are entitled to – certain non-allocative goods if they are to play their competitive, law-governed part in society. One such good is the rule of law itself; others are bodily integrity and property rights. We can extend this model of entitlement – and hence of rights which can be vindicated in the courts and disputes which can be adjudicated according to law – to other non-assignable goods, including the good of eight hours’ sleep or an evening in front of BBC 4. In practice, many non-assignable goods are difficult to deal with in this way, as witness the vagaries of anti-social behaviour legislation: the baseline entitlement to a non-assignable good (such as peace and quiet), the level to which others are responsible for upholding that entitlement and the degree to which offending behaviour infringes it are often hard to establish. However, this is not to say that relationships between one person’s anti-social behaviour and another’s unmerited suffering can never be established; in practice they very often can. My neighbour is not going to be able to fly under the law’s radar by making sure that all he deprives me of is the non-assignable good of a good night’s sleep – any more than if it were the non-assignable good of an unbroken nose.

But what is my neighbour doing in the (mercifully, highly unlikely) case that he tortures me? Here, I think, a different relationship between justice and personhood obtains. If we think of bodily integrity as a non-assignable good (and certainly your good health does nothing to impair mine), then the victim of torture has been deprived of a non-assignable good, and may be unable to play a full part in society as a result – but, as stated, this is no less true of the victim of a random assault at pub closing time. We can say that torture is more likely to have traumatic effects, and this seems significant: certainly if we think of other experiences which are likely to produce trauma (rape, battlefield stress, partner abuse) the word ‘torture’ is never far away. Torture, then, is one of the things that inflict trauma, in a way that a beating in the pub car park generally isn’t. But why is this a significant distinction? The point, I think, is that torture is an attack on my personhood. Personal violence can often be understood in terms of enhancing the attacker’s relative position by depriving the victim of a non-assignable good, making it harder for that person to play a role in society. Pace Gardner, the immorality of torture is not grounded in its depriving the victim of a non-assignable good. Torture is not about enhancing the torturer’s position relative to the victim, even with respect to the non-assignable good of freedom from pain. Torture – and other forms of traumatic assault – can be seen as an attack, not on the victim’s capacity to function in society, but on the victim’s basic recognition as a person who might be entitled to any such capacity. More simply put, causing pain for no reason is not something one person does to another; torture thus situates the victim as less than a person. It’s interesting, in passing, that Mill characterised rape in very similar terms – “the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclination”. To commit rape, in this line of thinking, is not to deny someone the good of freedom from rape, but to deny her the status of a person entitled to freedom from rape (and entitled, as a second-order right, to live her life on the basis of an assumed freedom from rape).

I think Gardner’s distinction between the immorality of torture and the wrongs which can be understood in terms of allocative justice is valid and powerful, although not quite in the way that he uses it. What I think it points to is the ways in which people can be reduced to something below the status of personhood – through torture or brutalisation, but also through homelessness, institutionalisation or becoming a refugee – and the powerlessness of the language of justice to address these very basic, fundamental wrongs. If the law is about justice, and justice is defined in terms of the correct adjudication of competing claims among autonomous individuals, how can it address – how can it fail to overlook – those people who are shut out of the game entirely, by being denied the status of person in the first place? And if the law can’t be invoked, what can?

2. Did you read the trespass notices, did you keep off the grass?

A bit more Gardner, from the 2011 paper on tort law. It’s quite a complicated thought, so the quote has to be on the long side:

Let’s allow … that tort law often helps to constitute the correctively just solution. What doesn’t follow is that tort law’s norm of corrective justice should not be evaluated as an instrument. On the contrary, to fulfill its morally constitutive role, tort law’s norm of corrective justice must be evaluated as an instrument. It must be evaluated as an instrument of improved conformity with the very moral norm that it helps to constitute. To see why, think about some other laws that are supposed to lend more determinacy to counterpart moral norms.

Quite apart from the law, for example, one has a moral obligation not to drive one’s car dangerously. The law attempts to make this obligation more determinate by, for example, setting up traffic lights, road markings, and speed limits. If the law does this with sound judgment, the proper application of the relevant moral norm is changed in the process. A manoeuvre that would not count as dangerous driving apart from the legal force of the lane markings at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel may well count as dangerous driving – and hence a breach of the moral norm forbidding dangerous driving – once the lane markings are in place. But this holds only if the law proceeds with sound judgment. It holds only if relying on the lane markings assists those who rely on them to avoid violating the original moral norm. If the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel has profoundly confusing lane markings, reliance on which only serves to make road accidents more likely, failing to observe the lane markings is not a legally constituted way of driving dangerously. It is not immoral under the ‘dangerous driving’ heading. That is because, if the lane markings are profoundly confusing, driving according to the lane markings does not and would not help to reduce the incidence of dangerous driving.

The lesson of the case is simple. A legal norm cannot play its partly constitutive role in relation to a moral norm unless it also has some instrumental role to play in relation to the same moral norm, unless conformity with the legal norm would help to secure conformity with the moral norm of which the legal norm is supposed to be partly constitutive.

We start with the “moral obligation not to drive one’s car dangerously”. Laws – embodied in road markings – are put in place to support this moral norm. In doing so they also constitute it, make it “more determinate”: if road markings are being generally observed, failing to observe them may amount to driving dangerously in and of itself. However, road markings – and laws – may defeat their own purpose. If road markings are so confusing that attempting to rely on them would make the driver more dangerous to other road users rather than less, failing to observe them will not amount to driving dangerously. Similarly a law may instantiate a moral norm, but do so in such a “profoundly confusing” way that someone attempting to observe the law will be more likely to violate the norm. If this is the case, anyone committed to observing the norm will be best advised to disregard the law which purports to embody it. “A legal norm cannot play its partly constitutive role in relation to a moral norm unless it also has some instrumental role to play in relation to the same moral norm”: road markings put in place to help prevent dangerous driving may themselves define dangerous driving, but only if observing them actually leads to less dangerous driving.

Three relationships between moral norms and the law are envisaged here. In one, the law embodies and gives substance to a moral norm. In the second, the “proper application” of the norm is redefined by reference to the law, leading to a changed perception of the norm itself. The third is identical to the second, except that in this scenario the “proper application” of the norm has been redefined to the point where the law does not assist observation of the norm, and may even impede it.

There’s a problem here, relating to that word ‘instrumental’. It seems to me that there’s something inherently problematic in judging the success or effectiveness of laws in consequentialist terms – in terms of the outcomes which they produce or appear to produce. Firstly, assuming that the moral norm to which a law relates can be straightforwardly identified, there is the question of what should be counted as success. Bad road markings, in Gardner’s image, are those for which “driving according to the lane markings does not and would not help to reduce the incidence of dangerous driving”. However, it is a commonplace of debates on sentencing that the criminal law can modify behaviour – both individually and at the level of society – in many different ways; what type(s) of behaviour modification should be counted as success is an open question. Is a law prohibiting practice X at its most effective if the incidence of X-ing is reduced to zero? Or is the effectiveness of the law to be judged by the appropriateness of the punishment dealt out to X-ers, or by the opportunity it gives the community to express their repugnance at X-ing, or by the degree to which it raises awareness of the plight of victims of X-ers? A case could be made out for any of these, not all of which can be reconciled easily or at all. Secondly, it’s not always clear that the moral norm underlying a law can in fact be readily identified, still less the body of moral norms underlying the law (or an area of the law, such as the criminal law or the law of tort). The point here is not that the law is necessarily obscure, but that it is necessarily multivocal: it’s always possible for different and competing claims to be made as to the underlying moral rationale of a law or laws. This in turn raises the question of who is to do the identifying – and whether what they identify can change over time. Suppose that an elected government, facing a long-term economic depression, declares that poverty is a higher priority than crime, and that the law should generally not be used to impoverish poor offenders further. Or suppose that an elected government, facing a rise in crime figures, declares that the chief menace facing the country today is lawless behaviour by immigrants, asylum seekers, Travellers and people of no fixed abode, and that wrongdoing by individuals with no stake in a local community should be treated more harshly. Would these programmatic announcements represent authoritative clarifications of the body of moral norms instantiated by the law, the criminal law in particular? Would we expect the judiciary to ‘read down’ legislation to ensure compliance with these policy stances? If not, why not?

As in the case of torture considered as deprivation of a non-assignable good, I think Gardner’s analogy here pulls in a different direction from his stated argument. Road markings modify behaviour in a distinctive way and in a distinctive context, neither of which maps easily onto the law in general. To drive a vehicle is to put others at risk and accept the risk imposed by others; driving safely rather than dangerously benefits both the driver in question and other road users, in a way which is true of few other ‘virtues’ in driving. In effect, driving safely is the solution to the key co-ordination problem posed by collective road use – and it is a simple, readily available and generally acknowledged solution. Moreover, road markings constitute the moral norm of driving safely in a peculiarly authoritative way, which is perhaps only possible because the norm itself is so generally agreed. Road markings do not typically take the form of recommendations or advice; even to call them instructions would understate the force they have in practice. Rather than advise (or instruct) a driver to make certain choices, road markings typically operate by excluding certain choices altogether: they do not influence behaviour so much as structure it. As such, road markings are not open to be technically observed or observed in spirit or ingeniously circumvented: they are observed or not. Both the moral norm underlying road markings and the criteria for their observance are self-evident, in a way that is seldom true of the law.

Are we committed to abandoning any ‘instrumental’ evaluation of the law, or of individual laws, by reference to their outcome? This conclusion would be unfortunate; not only would it necessitate abandoning Gardner’s insight on the reflexive relationship between laws and norms, it would make it impossible to say whether any law was making the world a better place. A narrower reading of Gardner’s analogy may provide a solution. The situation in which road markings are “profoundly confusing”, such that “reliance on [them] only serves to make road accidents more likely”, can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The implication could be that the road markings are so confusing that it is effectively impossible for any one driver to follow them. Alternatively, it could mean that the markings can be followed, but only at so great a cost in time and attention as to force the driver to disregard other road users, so that observing the markings made his or her driving more rather than less dangerous. Lastly, it could mean that the markings are confusing in the sense of allowing widely diverse readings; markings which could plausibly be followed in multiple different ways would not make any one person’s driving more dangerous, but would greatly increase the likelihood of accidents.

All these forms of confusion can be readily envisaged as flaws of badly-made laws or legal systems: the law so complex and confusing that it is impossible to observe; the law whose demands are so extensive as to make it hard to carry on the activity the law is intended to regulate; the law whose vague or contradictory wording causes more social conflicts than it resolves. Any one of these flaws will make a law less effective, either in guiding individual behaviour or in resolving co-ordination problems; as a result, the moral norm underlying the law will be less effectively constituted in social practice, or (at worst) not constituted at all. However, these are all formal flaws: the failure of the law to constitute a moral norm can be inferred from the failure of the law as law. The realisation of the moral norm underlying the law does not need to be measured as an outcome – indeed, it is probably better if this is not attempted, for the reasons given above.

What I draw from Gardner’s analogy, in short, is a restatement of the intimate connection between morality and the formal virtues of law. To say that a law or body of laws is coherent, comprehensible and followable is not simply to say that it is well-made. A well-made law is also one which is well suited to embody a moral norm – and, crucially, to refine and specify the proper application of the norm in social practice, playing “[a] partly constitutive role in relation to a moral norm”. Whether or not the formal virtues of law have any moral content in themselves, I think this argument suggests that there is at least an irreducible affinity between law and morality.

All the spaces the text affords (4/5)

All clear? Sorry that last instalment was so long; hopefully this will come out a bit shorter.

Here’s a passage from Hillel Steiner’s contribution to A debate over rights which stopped me in my tracks when I read it: I had to put the book down to work out what was going on, which involved staring into space for most of the next half hour.

Suppose you and I conclude a contract which imposes a duty on you to make a payment to my brother: he is the third-party beneficiary of our agreement. According to the Will Theory, I am the only right-holder involved in this arrangement. … According to the Interest Theory, however, not only am I definitely a beneficiary but also my brother, as another beneficiary, is also a right-holder in respect of your duty. …

One apparent difficulty raised by this view is the danger of a proliferation of right-holders. For if my brother proposes to use that payment to purchse something, then it looks like his vendor is a fourth-party beneficiary of my contract with you. …

Bentham suggests that a person is properly included in the set of a duty’s beneficiaries only if the breach of that duty would be a sufficient condition of that person’s interests being damaged. This test obviously does supply the requisite surgical remedy by cutting my brother’s vendor (and her successive beneficiaries) out of that set.

But (Steiner continues) can Bentham’s ‘sufficient condition’ test be defended in its own right, setting aside the fact that it is useful for anyone who wants to uphold an Interest Theory of rights?

If I supply you with the security codes for a bank vault, I supply a necessary but insufficient condition of your robbing that vault. Our ordinary understanding of ‘interests’, it seems to me, is such that my action would none the less count as detrimental to whatever interests persons have in that vault’s not being robbed. And if that’s so, your failure to pay my brother does count as detrimental to the interests of his vendor, whatever Bentham may say to the contrary.

If our ordinary understanding of ‘interests’ is such that supplying you with the security codes for a bank vault counts as detrimental to whatever interests persons have in that vault’s not being robbed, then your failure to pay my brother does count as detrimental to the interests of his vendor. Ow. You may now stare into space.

Steiner’s responding to Kramer, who sets out Bentham’s test in the course of his exposition of the (or an) interest theory of rights. The set-up is essentially the same, but it’s worth paying attention to the way Kramer phrases it:

Suppose that X has contracted with Y for the payment of several thousand dollars by Y to Z. Suppose further that Z plans to spend all of her newly obtained money on some furniture from W‘s shop. In this scenario, W of course will have profited from Y‘s fulfilment of the contractual obligation. Now, given that the Interest Theory ascribes a right to Z – a right that is probably not enforceable and perhaps not waivable by Z – must it also ascribe a right to W?

Kramer describes Bentham’s test in these terms:

any person Z holds a right under a contract or norm if and only if a violation of a duty under the contract or norm can be established by simply showing that the duty-bearer has withheld a benefit from Z or has imposed some harm upon him. Proof of the duty-bearer’s withholding of a desirable thing from Z, or proof of the duty-bearer’s infliction of an undesirable state of affairs on Z, must in itself be a sufficient demonstration that the duty-bearer has not lived up to the demands of some requirement.

So, what about X and Y?

Bentham’s test will work very smoothly when applied to the scenario of the third-party-beneficiary contract. To prove that Y has breached his contractual duty to X, one need only show that Y has inexcusably failed to make the required payment to Z. In other words, one need only show that Z has undergone an unexcused detriment at the hands of Y. Establishing that fact is sufficient for a successful demonstration of Y‘s breach of duty. Hence, Y‘s duty to X under the contract is conjoined with a duty owed by Y to Z; Z, in turn, holds a right to be paid by Y. …

While a demonstration of Y‘s inexcusable withholding of the requisite payment from Z is sufficient to prove Y‘s breach of contract, the same cannot be said about a demonstration of Z‘s failure to buy furniture from W‘s shop. Z‘s abstention from any purchases cannot by itself be adduced as sufficient grounds for concluding that Y has declined to fulfil his contract with X.

Now that is clear.

Steiner’s suggestion that Kramer doesn’t justify Bentham’s test independently of its utility for the Interest Theory seems ungenerous at best; Kramer’s position, as in the third-party-beneficiary example, is that when it’s applied to a problem in interpreting rights, Bentham’s test works – which is to say, it gives legally unproblematic, logically defensible and intuitively plausible answers. Steiner also appears to have got Bentham’s test backwards – the point is not that “the breach of [the] duty would be a sufficient condition of that person’s interests being damaged”, but that damage to that person’s interest is sufficient to demonstrate breach of a duty. If effect B (e.g. damage to interests) is sufficient to demonstrate cause A (e.g. breach of duty), cause A is a necessary condition of effect B; it may or may not be a sufficient condition.

Setting this aside, let’s compare Steiner’s two scenarios. In one, I make a contract with Bertram to pay money to Charlotte; I renege on the contract, leaving Charlotte out of pocket and unable to buy goods from David. In the other, I am employed by Bertha as a security guard. I break my contract of employment, enabling a burglar (Eric) to rob Charles’s bank vault; this is to the detriment of both Charles and his depositors, including Dawn. Intuitively, Steiner argues, we would say that David does not have a case against me, but Dawn has. However, the interest theory (as qualified by Bentham’s test) would disqualify Dawn as well as David; this, for Steiner, suggests that either the test or the interest theory itself is flawed.

There are three main possibilities in interpreting these two scenarios, depending on how we read Steiner’s two claims: that they both involve an indirect victim who would be disqualified from any rightful claim according to Bentham’s test; and that the second of them involves a victim who should not be disqualified. The possible readings are:

  1. The two scenarios are comparable; the indirect victim should be disqualified in one case but not the other
  2. The indirect victim should be disqualified in one case but not the other, but Steiner is wrong to say that the two scenarios are comparable
  3. The two scenarios are comparable, but Steiner is wrong to say that the indirect victim should not be disqualified in the second case; in fact the indirect victim should be disqualified in both cases

If either reading 2 or reading 3 is sustained, Bentham’s test survives unscathed.

Let’s consider reading 2: that there are significant differences between the two scenarios. Is this the case? Certainly, where parties C and D are concerned, we’re dealing with a loss in one case and failure to achieve a gain in the other – and there’s a criminal offence in one case but not the other – but their positions as third and fourth parties are the same.

A second complicating factor is my degree of responsibility for the loss. As we have seen, Steiner suggested that in betraying the security codes I furnished Eric with “a necessary but insufficient condition” of robbing the vault. Steiner’s formulation is terse and potentially misleading – it is unlikely to be the case that my misappropriation of the codes is the only possible route to robbing the vault. The thinking here seems to be that the capacity to enter the vault undetected is a necessary condition of robbing it, and my giving Eric the codes is a sufficient condition for him to acquire that capacity. This is more elaborate than “A contracts with B to pay money to C”, but I’m not sure it’s much more elaborate. The only significant difference is that it requires the intervention of (yet) another party, in the form of Eric – and since his function is to commit a criminal offence rather than to do anything legitimate, his agency can be bracketed out. To clarify this point, suppose that I let Eric get in by leaving a skylight open, and he made off with some bolts of fine and expensive fabric. Now suppose that Eric decided not to go out that night because it was raining – and the rain got in through the open skylight and spoiled the fabric. Unless the wording of my contract as a security guard was unusually precise, nothing would change significantly between the two scenarios as regards my responsibilities, or my relationship with Bertha, Charles and Dawn.

Another complication – although in this case it’s a complication that positively helps Steiner’s case – is my indirect relationship with the bank. If I were employed directly by Charles, it would be arguable that the third-party beneficiaries of the contract were, precisely, Charles’s clients, meaning that the two scenarios were not comparable. I think this would be a confused line of reasoning; if I work in security for a bank, the benefit accrues directly to the bank and only indirectly to its clients. Indeed, it could be argued that the bank is its own third-party beneficiary: as a bank guard I contract with the deposit-holding wing of the bank to keep those deposits secure, the benefit accruing to the trading wing of the bank. In any case, assuming that I work for Bertha’s security company removes this asymmetry.

In short, reading 2 can’t be made to work; the two scenarios, although superficially very different, seem to be directly comparable. But is Steiner right to suggest that my actions in the second case were detrimental to the interests of Dawn, the indirect victim – and that this casts doubt on the utility of Bentham’s test? I’m not convinced that he is. What, after all, is Dawn’s case against the bank? Something turns, perhaps surprisingly, on the nature of Dawn’s loss. If Dawn is simply a depositor, it’s not clear that she has sustained any loss at all. Banks don’t hold our account balances in the form of stacks of notes – which is just as well, seeing that they don’t go into the bank in that form, by and large.  Money is supremely fungible. To say that I have a balance of £X is to say that the bank undertakes to pay me up to £X without asking for anything back; the bottom line of a bank statement is effectively a promissory note, a promise “to pay the bearer on demand”. It may conceivably be that Dawn urgently needs a sum of cash the day after the burglary, and that Eric has emptied the vault to the point where the bank is unable to make the payment, but this is a second-order problem relating to the relationship between Charles and Dawn; Dawn’s interests as an owner of property, some of it in the form of bank deposits, are not affected by the removal of folding money from the vault. Not only are the two scenarios are directly comparable, it seems; the relations between third and fourth parties (Charlotte and David, Charles and Dawn) are also directly comparable, and equally disconnected from the relationship between me, Bertram/Bertha and Charles/Charlotte. Whether Charles is able to carry on business as usual with Dawn is not determined by my breach of contract with Bertha, any more than whether Charlotte is able to spend money with David is determined by my breach of contract with Bertram.

It could be argued that this whole line of argument is misdirected, however. Steiner refers, not to bank depositors in general (whose interest in bank vaults not being robbed seems to be surprisingly limited), but to “whatever interests persons have in that vault’s not being robbed”. Let’s suppose, then, that Dawn does have an interest in the vault not being robbed, in the sense that it holds personal items which would be hard or impossible to replace. I stop carrying out my duty to Bertha, to benefit Charles by securing his premises, with the result that Dawn suffers a permanent loss (from Eric or possibly from bad weather). Surely this is a case of a genuine fourth-party beneficiary (or victim)? I don’t believe it is. The loss in this case is not in fact to Charles but, directly, to Dawn (or, at most, to both Charles and Dawn): I have permitted the removal or spoilage of Dawn’s property, giving my actions just as direct a relationship with Dawn’s interests as if the burglary had taken place at her house. Dawn has a claim against me to the extent that I have undertaken, explicitly or implicitly, to protect her property as well as Charles’s. And, I would argue, if I am placed in the position of protecting premises whose contents are both vulnerable and irreplaceable, I (or my employers) have made just such an undertaking and thereby acquired a liability to the property’s owners. To the extent that the third-party beneficiary of my contract with Bertha is Charles and not his depositors, it seems to me, it must be open to Charles to keep his depositors out of the picture as regards the relationship between him and Bertha (and, by extension, me). If it is not possible, Dawn and other depositors cease to be fourth parties and become third-party beneficiaries in their own right.

My reading may be challengeable, but it seems to me that Steiner’s attempted disproof of Bentham’s test has led us instead to a demonstration and restatement of the test. In a contract with a third-party beneficiary, fourth-party beneficiaries are those who have no right under the contract, as a detriment to them does not suffice to prove breach of the contract. If detriment does prove breach of the contract, the supposed fourth party is in fact an unanalysed third party.

As I said at the outset, I’m keeping an open mind about the Interest Theory of rights, at least in Kramer’s form; my temperamental inclination is more towards some form of Will Theory. But, to the extent that an Interest Theory requires to be delimited by Bentham’s test in some form, and to the extent that Steiner’s argument aimed to undermine Bentham’s test, I’d say that the Interest Theory is looking pretty good so far.

Next: some thoughts on two brief passages by John Gardner (one on tort and torture, the other on road markings and the minimum morality of law). After that I shall probably have to get back to work.

Turtles all the way up (3/5)

Let’s return to those second-order pairings – power :: liability and immunity :: disability (or if you prefer, to those second-order opposites: power/disability and liability/immunity).

1. So then I took my turn

Consider the criminal law: I have a duty to obey the law; we can suppose that this is correlative to a privilege held by the state, or an individual who holds an office enabling him or her to represent the state, e.g. my friendly local policeman, who I’ll call PC Yellow (for reasons which will become clear later). Now, what can Yellow and I do with this duty/privilege pairing – or rather, what can’t we do with it? The important thing that Yellow can’t do, I think, is waive it. Enforcement of the law can be selective and discretionary – you could say that the texture of the law is open enough for enforcement always to be discretionary to some extent. But it’s not open to Yellow to state that, as far as he has anything to say about it, I personally am free of any duty to obey the law; at least, if he does say that, it’s likely to cause legal trouble for him.

So I have a duty to obey the law, correlated to a privilege in the performance of that duty held by PC Yellow, and Yellow is unable to waive that privilege; in other words, Yellow has a disability of waiver, correlating to an immunity to waiver on my part. ‘Immunity’ may seem like an odd term in this context, but what we’re really talking about is one person altering another person’s legal standing: as a citizen subject to the rule of law I’m ‘immune’ to Yellow placing me above the law, but by the same token I’m immune to being placed below the law, subjected to arbitrary impositions and controls.

This is an example of the ‘second-order’ quality of powers (and disabilities) – the fact that they have effect on other jural relations. Confining myself for the time being to the power of waiver, any holder of a privilege (correlated with a duty) may have the power of waiver over the duty; more to the point, if the holder of the privilege doesn’t have a power of waiver, he or she must necessarily have a disability of waiver. A power of waiver is correlated with a liability to waiver on the part of the duty-holder; a disability of waiver is correlated with an immunity to waiver. Liberties as well as duties may be waived: the holder of a no-right (a lack of entitlement to constrain another’s actions in a particular area) may also have the power of waiver over the correlated liberty – and if the holder of the no-right does not have a power of waiver, he or she will necessarily have a disability of waiver.

At this point it gets (more) complicated. Duties and liberties both represent ways in which one person’s actions are subject to another’s control – or delimited lack of control; but the same can be said of liability and immunity, given that liability by definition involves the potential imposition of a duty. It follows that liabilities and immunities can also be waived – which is to say that they are logically associated, in any given case, with either  power of waiver or a disability of waiver.

We can see where this logic leads if we return to our criminal law example. So far we have one duty (to obey the law) and one privilege, plus one disability (Yellow’s incapacity to place me above the law) and one immunity. Now, can I waive my immunity[1]? In general terms, somebody who is immune to prosecution (for instance) may well have the power of waiving that immunity. Can I, in this case, waive the immunity[1] to being placed above (or beneath) the law? We’ll assume that it’s an unwaivable immunity – I can’t opt to be above the law even if I’d like to be. In this case, I hold a disability[2] of waiver of immunity to waiver, which correlates with an immunity[2] held by Yellow. Yellow in turn is unable to waive his immunity[2], giving him a disability[3] which correlates with an immunity[3] on my part – this third immunity being an immunity to waiver of immunity to waiver of immunity to waiver of duty. I am unable to waive this immunity[3], which means… but enough already; you get the gist.

Hillel Steiner, in his contribution to A Debate over Rights considers the criminal law in Hohfeldian terms and rapidly heads off in a different direction:

Like ordinary citizens, subordinate state officials are standardly disabled from waiving compliance with criminal law duties. Thus Yellow, a subordinate state official, holds a disability to waive a person’s duty not to rob. Yellow’s superior, let’s call her Black, therefore holds an immunity against Yellow’s doing so. Can Black waive her own immunity? What would be implied in denying her the power to do so? For Black’s immunity to be an unwaivable one she, in turn, would have to be encumbered with a disability: namely, the disability to waive Yellow’s disability. But if Black does hold such a disability then some still more superior official, call him Green, must hold an immunity correlative to Black’s disability.

We could, I suppose, continue indefinitely adding such epicycles to this line of reasoning by imagining that Green’s immunity too is unwaivable and identifying yet another even more superior official, Orange, who in turn holds the immunity correlative to Green’s thereby entailed disability. And so on. Let’s not do that. For the sufficiently unmistakable point here is that wherever we decide to stop this otherwise infinite regress, it can be stopped only by an immunity which is waivable. Unwaivable immunities (eventually!) entail waivable ones. So, yes, there can be unwaivable immunities. But what there can’t be are unwaivable immunities without there also being a waivable one. And the waiving of that one renders waivable whatever (otherwise unwaivable) immunity entails it.

A similar passage in Steiner’s 1994 book An Essay on Rights is discussed in Nigel Simmonds’s 1995 paper “The Analytical Foundations of Justice”; the argument reappears more or less unchanged in A Debate over Rights, albeit with a long footnote in response to Simmonds.

There are three things to say about Steiner’s argument here. One is that an Austinian command model of law seems to be creeping in here, with antinomies in the law resolved by reference upward. The thinking here seems to be that official A’s unwaivable subjection to the law is a disability held by official B, who in turn is bound by the effects of a disability held by official C, and so on up the chain until we reach Permanent Secretary Z, whose superior is the sovereign; the latter holds a position above the law, which enables him or her to waive Perm Sec Z’s disability, enabling Z in turn to set the underlings free. Some such model can explain how the rule of law is compatible with change in the law. Interestingly, you can turn the whole model upside down without much loss of explanatory power: official A is above the law relative to you and me, but holds a disability making him or her liable to the law relative to official B, who in turn is above the law relative to A but not to C… until we meet Perm Sec Z, directly subject to the sovereign, who in turn is subject to nobody but empowered to make the law. In this case we would have explained how official freedom of action is compatible with the rule of law. But I think we’re dealing in fables either way, and (more importantly) fables based on a very limited model of the law.

The second point to make – and one that’s made very clearly in Simmonds’s paper – is that Steiner is at best departing from Hohfeld. If we follow Hohfeld, there’s no reason to bring Yellow’s superior into the picture. Yellow’s disability vis-à-vis you or me does not correlate with an immunity held by his or her superior; it correlates, precisely, with an immunity held by you or me. The regress is not vertical but spiral: it consists not of Yellow referring his/her immunity up a Kafkaesque chain of superiors, but of me and Yellow running up an infinite pitch while passing the immunity ball back and forth between ourselves. There’s also something odd – and un-Hohfeldian – in Steiner’s apparent belief that the infinite regress could be stopped with a waivable immunity, i.e. by substituting a power for a disability. In Hohfeldian terms (as Simmonds points out) this would make no difference at all: if you did have the power to waive your immunity, this would correlate to a liability held by Yellow, who would in turn either be able or unable to waive that liability, and off we would go again.

On the other hand (and thirdly), I do think Steiner has identified a genuine problem. I’ll discuss it in the next section.

2. Enough! No more.

If we use Hohfeld’s model, the reasonably plain-language term “unwaivable” apparently can’t be defined without presuming an immunity to waiver of immunity to waiver of immunity to waiver, to say nothing of an immunity to waiver of that immunity, an immunity to waiver of that one, and so indefinitely on. Simmonds talks of these higher-order immunities and disabilities being ‘generated’ through inquiry, which I think is a useful way of looking at it; as if to say, the question of the waivability of the immunity to waive (etc) only arises once you ask it, but once asked it has to be answered. One can imagine MacCruiskeen in the Third Policeman being an expert in this field:

“Ah now. You’ll be talking about the immunity to waiver of the immunity of waiver.”

I supposed that I was. The policeman gave me a look of indescribable craftiness.

“That’s the cleverness of it, you see? I’m talking about the immunity to waiver of the immunity of waiver of the immunity of waiver. And I know what you’re wondering. Can that immunity be waived of its own self?”

I said nothing. The policeman’s ingenuity was rapidly ceasing to be a thing of fascination and becoming one of horror. MacCruiskeen caught my eye and – ye Gods! – winked.

“It cannot, and that’s the truth. There exists an immunity of waiver of the immunity of waiver of the immunity of waiver of the immunity of waiver. What do you think of that now?”

I agree with Steiner in finding this line of thinking troubling. Apart from anything else, it makes me wonder what would happen if I somehow acquired a liability to waiver of immunity to waiver of immunity to waiver of immunity to waiver of immunity to waiver of duty, as it were by accident – would that liability ripple down the chain, leaving me liable (under certain conditions) to waiver of duty? And then, how could the acquisition of some such nth-level liability be ruled out? In his footnote Steiner argues that “any form of infinite regress … cannot be part of anything describable as a normative (much less legal) system; there are necessarily insufficient persons and/or time to sustain it” (emphasis in original); the ‘spiral regress’ proposed by Simmonds resembles “a game whose rules include a stipulation that, at the end of any round, either player is entitled to demand a further round” – an instruction set so open to being prolonged that (pace Wittgenstein) it would be difficult to describe it as a game.

The ‘spiral regress’ thus raises two inter-related problems. On one hand, in specifying a second-order relation – a liability or immunity – it seems as if we can never stop. A liability which can be waived is a liability associated with a power of waiver, correlated with a liability to waiver; this second liability in turn may be waivable, in which case it in turn will be correlated with a second power of waiver… and so on. Different possibilities seem to open up at every stage, and the stages can multiply indefinitely. On the other hand, when interpreting second-order relations – working, as it were, from the outside in – the appearance of multiple, ramifying possibilities seems to collapse. To say that I can waive my immunity to waiver of an immunity to waiver of duty is to say that, in some circumstances, I am liable to waiver of an immunity to waiver of duty – which in turn equates to saying that I may be liable to waiver of duty. Depending on your standpoint, the multiple levels of secondary jural relations seem either to need specifying to infinite precision or to be logically equivalent – in which case they would not need to be specified at all.

As with Dworkin’s right not to be lied to, I think there are a number of possible solutions to this puzzle. One is what you might call the “and no returns” approach. This would see the immunity of waiver I enjoy relative to PC Yellow and the criminal law elaborated into a general immunity, encompassing that immunity and all derivable immunities: as if to say, I have an immunity relative to you in the area of waiving the duty of obeying the criminal law, I have a composite disability relative to you in the area of waiver of this immunity and in the area of waiver of any higher-order immunities deriving from it, and I have a further immunity relative to you as concerns the waiver of the composite immunity correlating to that composite disability. This is a single sentence, but otherwise it’s not much of an improvement: we haven’t succeeded in parcelling up all those higher-order immunities into a single over-arching immunity. And, even if we had done, the Hohfeldian question would still be lurking: this immunity – can it be waived or not?

A more fruitful approach, I think, would be to say that, while it’s always possible to inquire about the powers or disabilities associated with a particular duty, liberty, liability or immunity – and once asked the question can always be answered – it’s not generally necessary to make the inquiry. An infinite (spiral) regress is always possible, but it only comes into being when you start to explore it. And – importantly – traversing the spiral regress generated by considering powers of waiver is something to be done in the real world, under specifiable conditions, not as an abstract exercise. This “real world” stipulation, I think, wards off both the mise en abîme feared by Steiner and the risk of the spiral collapsing into undifferentiated logical equivalence. Here’s an illustration. Let us say that an eccentric relative leaves me a small annuity in his will, on the condition that I visit his grave every May Day. The duty, correlating to a privilege held by Uncle Albert’s executor, is not waivable; if there is no visit, the executor will not pay out. This disability[1] correlates to an immunity[1] on my part; my duty cannot be affected by any variation of the terms of the will by the executor. I am not able to waive this immunity; I have a disability[2] of waiver, correlating to an immunity[2] to waiver held by the executor. In other words, I cannot agree to any variation of the terms of the will which the executor puts forward, and if I offer to agree any such variation the executor may not entertain the offer – he or she is immune to the suggestion. Further, the executor is powerless to waive this immunity, and this disability[3] correlates to a further immunity[3] on my part: it is not open to the executor to propose that henceforth, under certain circumstances, suggestions of agreement to possible variations in the will’s terms will be entertained, nor is it open to me to take any notice of such a proposal.

Let’s suppose, then, that I acquire the power to waive this last immunity, and the executor’s correlative disability with it. In this situation I would let the executor know that, under certain circumstances (which I would specify), I would endorse the proposal that suggestions of agreement to possible variations in the will’s terms would be entertained. What happens now? If my earlier intuition were correct, and a power of waiver would simply propagate back down a chain of immunities and disabilities, I could proceed fairly directly to asking the executor if I could cut out this year’s May Day observance and take the money anyway. This clearly isn’t the case: my willingness to endorse the above proposal (under specified conditions) creates the conditions for the proposal to be made, but doesn’t generate it; that’s up to the executor. If he or she wishes to make such a proposal, and if my stated conditions are congenial, my waiver of my immunity[3] makes it possible for the executor in turn to waive his or her immunity[2] and offer to accept my agreement to possible future variations of the terms of the will, should I give it. However, the waiver of my immunity[3] does not make the waiver of the executor’s immunity[2] necessary – and if the executor does in fact decide to waive his or her immunity[2], this can be done with a whole new set of strings attached. If both sets of conditions are satisfied, and if I wish to do so, I can then agree to any variation of the terms of the will which the executor puts forward – if he or she decides to do so, and if any new conditions attached to this operation are met.

I think that working through this example demonstrates that both the fear of an infinite regress and the fear of collapse into logical equivalence are overstated. It’s true that the spiral of correlative immunities and disabilities (or liabilities and powers) can always be given one more twist: in fact, to say that I can waive my immunity[3] implies that I must have a power[4] to waive my immunity[3] to the waiver of an immunity[2] to the waiver of an immunity[1] to waiver of duty (and to say that I cannot would imply a disability[4], and so on). But once real world considerations are imported diminishing returns start to set in fairly quickly. It makes fairly good intuitive sense to talk about not being able to waive my immunity to any variation of my duty; it’s less obvious what a waiver of immunity to proposals that suggestions of agreement to possible variations in my duty might in future be entertained would look like, or when we might need one. The same logic applies when you look at the spiral from the outside in. While further twists of the spiral can always be generated, higher-order powers and immunities are always in a sense parasitic on lower-order ones, and can’t determine them: waiving a higher-order immunity may make it possible to waive the next one down, but does not make it necessary or likely. The spiral regress is populated by human actors with their own interests and bounded freedom of action; legal powers and disabilities constrain their actions but do not determine them.

3. Just step sideways

This is satisfactory as far as it goes, but I don’t think it gets to the heart of Steiner’s worry about Simmonds’ formulation. In my example, a stack of immunities and disabilities followed by a single power of waiver would not lead to the waiver of the first immunity automatically, regularly or (in practice) very often at all; in practice, it would be of very little moment whether the fifth or sixth twist of the spiral was populated by a disability or a power, given the extreme unlikelihood of any fifth- or sixth-level power of waiver actually enabling a first-level waiver. But this result – the waiver propagating back up the spiral – would be possible; the original immunity would not be unwaivable. To formulate an immunity which literally could not be waived, one would need to follow the spiral regress, essentially, to infinity: stopping at the 5th or 10th or 100th iteration would leave open the possibility that the waiver of an n-times-parasitic immunity would propagate all the way back up to the immunity which we originally wanted to protect.

I can see two possible approaches to solving this problem. One would be to appeal to the “real world” approach and dismiss the question as badly-framed. Hohfeld’s jural relations have their own logical precision and purity – the argument would run – but they are jural relations first and last, abstractions moulded to the proportions of real-world problems. A 100th iteration of immunity/disability ball-passing is unimaginable in a real situation; as Steiner says, we just haven’t got the time (although we have got the people – it only takes two). However, what this implies – contra Steiner – is that to treat the spiral regress as a mechanism capable of generating a hundred or more iterations is to get it wrong. An unwaivable immunity, on this logic, is an immunity which is effectively unwaivable: as if to say, “we agree that the next question will be answered in the negative, for as long as either of us has the motivation to ask the next question”. What this formulation brings out is how firmly Hohfeld’s relations are rooted in the model of relations between two people, and specifically agreements between two people. An unwaivable immunity is fundamentally an agreement; as such it cannot be enforced (“I demand that you make this immunity unwaivable by joining me in answering the next question in the negative”) unless it has first been agreed – in which case what is being enforced is not an agreement but observance of a prior agreement.

Another possible approach takes us back to the hierarchy of officials Steiner envisaged as an alternative to an infinite regress. Infinite regress is a besetting problem for theories of the law. Where, after all, do laws come from? Plainly, laws are made by authorities legally endowed with the power to make law. But how did this power arise? It must have been created by an act of law-making; this itself must have been carried out by some higher authority, itself endowed with the power to make law… and so implausibly on.

One way to avoid this infinite regress is to declare the regress to be finite, essentially capping it off at a fixed point. The command model enables us to cut the knot fairly crudely, simply declaring that the state – or the sovereign – is the final source of the law’s legitimacy and hence ultimately takes precedence. Hans Kelsen’s theory of the Grundnorm (‘basic norm’) can be seen as a similar manoeuvre on a more theoretical level. To quote a paper by Neil Duxbury (which, on a personal note, was the first work of legal theory I ever read):

Every legal norm ‘must be created by way of a special act … not of intellect but of will’ – the will of not just anybody, but of a person or body legally authorized to create the legal norm. That authority is itself conferred on that person or body by another legal norm .. which must itself be created by way of an act of will issuing from a person or body whose law-creating capacity is authorized by yet another legal norm. And so on, until we reach the basic norm. Whereas we can explain the reason for the validity of any legal norm by saying that it is attributable to the will of a person or body whose action is authorized by another legal norm, this explanation cannot be applied to the basic norm. The basic norm is not an enacted norm. ‘It must be presupposed,’ Kelsen elaborated in 1960, ‘because it cannot be “posited,” that is to say: created, by an authority whose competence would have to rest on a still higher norm. This final norm’s validity cannot be derived from a higher norm, the reason for its validity cannot be questioned.’ Because it is not an enacted norm, moreover, it ‘cannot be the meaning of an act of will’; rather, ‘it can only be the meaning of an act of thinking’ – the consequence of ‘presuppos[ing] in our juristic thinking the norm: “One ought to obey the prescriptions of the historically first constitution.”’

We can safely say that this is not entirely satisfactory, since Kelsen himself ultimately abandoned this line of thought (or, Duxbury argues, subverted it by developing tendencies within it); his final conclusion was that the basic norm should be thought of, not as a norm attributable to an act of thinking, but as a fictional norm attributable to the will of a fictional authority. This is a more subtle and interesting point than it looks – particularly when we take into account that, at least some of the time, Kelsen used ‘fictional’ to denote that something not only did not but could not exist, owing to internal contradictions – but I won’t investigate it here.

My current point is that both Kelsen’s basic norm and Austin’s sovereign – considered as capstones topping off an otherwise infinite regress – are arbitrary and unsatisfactory solutions, but solutions to a genuine problem. The problem is not, in Steiner’s terms, “a game whose rules include a stipulation that, at the end of any round, either player is entitled to demand a further round” – as we’ve seen in the context of Uncle Albert’s will, in practice this isn’t likely to cause any difficulties. The problem – both for the legitimacy of legal authorities, and for Simmonds’s unwaivable immunities – is a game in which, at the end of every round, the player must ask for another round. In both cases the question is unanswered at the end of each round, and it’s a question that needs an answer – whether it’s where the legitimacy of law-making authorities comes from or whether an immunity genuinely cannot be waived.

For the first of these cases of infinite regress, a much more satisfactory alternative is offered by Hart’s rule of recognition. Hart’s deceptively simple proposition is that any legal system includes a criterion by which laws can be recognised as ‘legal’, and which is acknowledged and upheld by the practices of officials within the system. Instead of referring upwards to a higher authority (itself dependent on a still higher authority), this approach effectively refers sideways. The question posed is not whether an enactment derived from a legitimate authority, but whether the authority in question was engaging in what was recognised as the activity of law-making within that legal system, including observation of the rules and criteria applicable within that system. The regress stops after a single step; the question of whether, for example, the constitution of the present law-making authority took place in accordance with the criteria then applicable is of purely historical interest – unless that question forms part of the criteria to be applied within the current system, in which case it will in effect already have been asked.

Can the infinite spiral regress associated with unwaivable immunities be dealt with similarly? I think perhaps it can. I suggested above that an effectively unwaivable immunity – as distinct from an immunity which is unwaivable by definition – could be modelled as an agreement that the immunity should be treated as unwaivable, generating a disability of waiver whose correlative immunity was in turn treated as unwaivable, and so on: “we agree that the next question will be answered in the negative, for as long as either of us has the motivation to ask the next question”. This is a “let’s not go there” model of unwaivable immunity, essentially. Perhaps all that is needed to formalise this practice – and bridge the gap between ‘effectively unwaivable’ and ‘unwaivable by definition’ – is a generally recognised rule, and a practice of classification through which it can be determined whether the rule applies. In other words, perhaps when we say that an immunity is unwaivable we are not saying that the derived nth-level immunity to waiver carries a disability of waiver correlative to an n+1th-level immunity, and so on; perhaps we are saying that we can rely on this immunity being treated as unwaivable (by the “let’s not go there” method), because we know that it falls into the class of immunities which we have an established and publicly recognised practice of treating as unwaivable. The infinite regress doesn’t evaporate quite as dramatically as in the previous example – it’s still meaningful to say that I have no power to waive immunity to changes in my standing relative to the criminal law, for instance, and to ask what such a power might look like. Navigating the spiral regress ceases to be necessary, though, which is the desired effect.

Does this class of immunities to be treated as unwaivable, or this practice of recognising immunities as unwaivable, correspond to anything in the real world? Fortunately for me (and for your patience), I think it does. One way of modelling the difference between the criminal law and most (all?) other branches of the law is, I think, precisely the unwaivable immunity with which we started: the immunity to being placed above (or below) the law. In other areas of the law – areas which approximate more closely to Hohfeld’s model of a two-person agreement – it is an open question whether a duty can be waived and (if not) whether the immunity correlative to the disability of waiver can itself be waived. In the criminal law the answer to both questions can only be No. This is one aspect of the uniformity of the criminal law, which can be considered one of its defining virtues: equal subjection to the criminal law can be seen as a civil right, a key element of citizenship.

This is speculative and fairly hasty stuff, but I think it’s worth thinking about. To recapitulate, if we did resolve the spiral regress in the way I’m suggesting, it would mean that there was at least one recognisable area of legal practice which operated on the basis of duties and derived immunities being unwaivable – and did so without inquiring too deeply into the waivability of higher-level immunities, as the answer could be assumed to be negative. The criminal law seems like a good candidate.

If you lie to me (2/5)

More about A debate over rights (Matthew Kramer, Nigel Simmonds and Hillel Steiner).

My route into legal theory was via Simmonds and Lon Fuller (or Pashukanis, Simmonds and Fuller to be precise). Matthew Kramer is very much on the other side of the debate when it comes to Hart and Fuller (when it comes to Kramer and Simmonds, come to that), so I have to say I wasn’t expecting to find his contribution to the book particularly congenial. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised by the power and cogency of his arguments. I read most of the book enthusiastically and at speed, but Kramer’s section in particular; I found myself muttering some of his conclusions out loud as I read them, not as an aid to comprehension but just because they were so well written. I’m not sure that I endorse his version of the interest theory of rights, but I did notice that Simmonds’s trenchant attacks on interest theories left it largely unscathed (as Simmonds in fact acknowledged). But, as I said, I’ll return to this question another time.

For now, here’s a passage from Ronald Dworkin which Kramer discusses briefly.

Dworkin:

In many cases … corresponding rights and duties are not correlative, but one is derivative from the other, and it makes a difference which is derivative from which. There is a difference between the idea that you have a duty not to lie to me because I have a right not to be lied to, and the idea that I have a right that you not lie to me because you have a duty not to tell lies. In the first case I justify a duty by calling attention to a right; if I intend any further justification it is the right that I must justify, and I cannot do so by calling attention to the duty. In the second case it is the other way around.

Of course, if rights (privileges) are by definition correlated with duties, it cannot make a difference “which is derivative from which”. So what was Dworkin talking about – is there any way to maintain Hohfeldian correlativity while maintaining that there is a significant difference between “I have a right not to be lied to [by you]” and “you have a duty not to tell lies [to me]“, such that information would be lost if we replaced one with the other?

Kramer suggests one line of interpretation:

Dworkin might be referring only to justificational correlativity (and derivativeness) rather than to analytical or existential correlativity (and derivativeness). That is, he might be referring to levels of priority within a justificatory argument only – and not to levels of priority within an analytical exposition or within a legal system. If so, then Dworkin is not proclaiming that Hohfeld’s Correlativity Axiom somehow fails to apply to the legal positions commended by duty-based and right-based theories.

On this reading, Dworkin is not claiming that the paired right and duty are non-correlated, but only that their relationship will be explained in different ways in different situations: as if to say, I might justify the physical challenge of an uphill slope by calling attention to the aesthetic quality of a downhill slope, or vice versa, and it makes a difference (to me and my interlocutors) which is derivative from which.

This is fair enough, but it seems a fairly meagre basis on which to claim that “[some] corresponding rights and duties are not correlative”. Can Dworkin’s argument be grounded more securely? I think it can, in two ways, although neither of them actually challenges Hohfeldian correlativity. In one case the difference which Dworkin detects between the right-not-to-be-lied-to and the duty-not-to-lie rests on linguistic imprecision. The additional information which, Dworkin argues, is carried by one formulation as compared to the other has actually been read into it; if the distinction had been spelt out, it would have become clear that the right and duty being discussed were not a logical pairing and the appearance of an exception from correlativity would have disappeared. In the other, the additional information needed to create the asymmetry derives from a particular reading of the concept of rights – one which is tenable and quite widely used, but is also quite incompatible with Hohfeld’s model.

The first way to salvage Dworkin’s argument rests on generality. Note Dworkin’s phrasing:

There is a difference between the idea that you have a duty not to lie to me because I have a right not to be lied to, and the idea that I have a right that you not lie to me because you have a duty not to tell lies.

Emphasis added. And this is true: there is a difference between the statement that I have a right not to be lied to by anyone, including you, and the statement that you have a duty not to tell lies to anyone, including me. But this says nothing about correlativity. In the (unlikely) case that I hold a privilege of not being lied to against any and every person I come into contact with, this correlates with a duty on the part of each of those individuals. My privilege against you lying to me is one element of this set of privileges against the world in general, and is precisely correlated with a duty on your part. A similar argument applies in the case where you are under a general duty not to lie. All Dworkin is saying, on this argument, is that general privileges don’t correlate with specific duties – which is to say, privileges and duties don’t correlate if they are imprecisely formulated.

Perhaps this wasn’t Dworkin’s reasoning; perhaps the line quoted above is just a case of hasty phrasing or unfortunate editing, and Dworkin’s thought would have been represented just as well (or better) by this formulation:

There is a difference between the idea that you have a duty not to lie to me because I have a right not to be lied to by you, and the idea that I have a right that you not lie to me because you have a duty not to tell lies to me.

Can we make this work, in analytical and not merely justificatory terms (there is a difference between the idea)? Only with difficulty, I think. But there is one angle worth looking at, which I’ll call the argument from confidence. Suppose that Dworkin’s argument implicitly concerned, not a “right not to be lied to”, but to a “right to the confident expectation of not being lied to”. Such a right would certainly seem to carry a derived (and not correlated) duty on others not to lie. If the duty not to lie came first, on the other hand, there would be no question of confident expectation: your duty not to lie to me gives me the right to feel, not confidence, but certainty that you will in fact not lie to me. There seems to be an asymmetry between the two pairings.

But what is this ‘confident expectation’, and why – in the teeth of the text – have I introduced it? I’m thinking now of a conception of rights which is far removed from the level of specificity on which Hohfeld’s model works so well. Suppose that when we invoke rights we’re talking about a kind of potentially universalisable framework of moral duties and privileges governing all social interactions: a framework which we (the community which recognises those rights) aspire to implement as a coherent whole, not least through the law, but which is always necessarily a work in progress. Suppose, in short, that we’re talking about something much closer to Fuller’s “morality of aspiration” than the “morality of duty”. The argument from generality is relevant here: in this situation, any right I might have not to be lied to by you would derive from a broader right not, in principle, to be lied to by anyone. But on this aspirational reading of rights, I would have no absolute right not to be lied to, by you or anyone else. I would have a right to the confident expectation of not being lied to (by anyone), by virtue of my membership of a community which upholds the right not to be lied to as an aspiration; at the same time, I would know that aspirations are not duties, and shortfalls from aspirations – and trade-offs between conflicting aspirations – are always a possibility.

This would not release you from any duty not to lie to me, however. My right to the confident expectation of not being lied to by you is only a duty-generating right in principle, all other things being equal, and only you can know in a given situation whether all other things are in fact equal. That said, if the description of the relationship between you and me is updated to include the line “Phil has the right to the confident expectation of not being lied to by you”, the way in which this new information should influence your behaviour is fairly clear. The associated duty is not correlated, but it derives directly – albeit that, in the unpredictable complexities of social life, it would not derive predictably or uniformly. In short, this way of conceptualising rights leads naturally to the asymmetry which Dworkin identifies in an apparently symmetrical pairing of right and duty.

Dworkin’s argument can be salvaged, then, by the simple expedient of stripping out the specificity, precision and duty-orientation of Hohfeld’s model and replacing it with a conception of rights based on a society-wide morality of aspiration, from which duties could be generated only unreliably and by derivation. In short, the ‘confident expectation’ reading would involve completely abandoning Hohfeld and using a schema which makes no claim to correlativity. The ‘generality’ reading rests on a verbal quibble and disappears if we use more precise phrasing, while Kramer’s own explanation – the ‘justification’ reading – would deprive Dworkin’s argument of the significance he seems to claim for it.

I think we can conclude that the project of reconciling Dworkin’s argument with Hohfeld’s framework has been tested to destruction.

Next: Simmonds and Steiner, and Simmonds on Steiner.

Whose pigs are these? (1/5)

Whose pigs are these?
Whose pigs are these?
They are John Potts’
I can tell them by their spots
And I found them in the vicarage garden
(Traditional)

I recently read A Debate over Rights: Philosophical Enquiries by Matthew Kramer, Nigel Simmonds and Hillel Steiner. I enjoyed it enormously. Over the next few days (or weeks) I’m going to post some thoughts which the book sparked off, focusing on points which puzzled me or seemed to need more developing. The next three posts will document some lines of thought which the book sparked off, and which I’ve been worrying at ever since. Post 5 will be devoted to some thoughts on a couple of essays by John Gardner, which don’t entirely belong with the other posts but need to be go somewhere. I’m not, at this stage, offering any kind of engagement with A Debate over Rights as a whole or with the authors’ main arguments; in fact there won’t be anything (for now) about Simmonds’ contribution, or very much about Kramer’s. I’ll re-read the book once I’ve finished the series, which will hopefully prompt some more thoughts.

This first post is going to provide a bit of theoretical background. The three essays making up A Debate over Rights all begin from the logical model of “jural relations” set out by the legal theorist Wesley Hohfeld (1879-1918). Before getting to the specifics, it’s important to note that all Hohfeld’s relations apply in principle between two people and in a particular field of action. For example, Jay’s desire to wear a hat might be protected from Kay’s attempts to thwart it by a right of non-interference – a “liberty” in Hohfeld’s terminology. In this example, this specific liberty would only make a very small and local contribution to Jay’s freedom of action: it would say nothing about anyone else’s ability to stop Jay wearing a hat, or about any non-hat-related coercion Kay might want to exercise. This is a fundamental point about Hohfeld’s scheme, which can have the unfortunate effect of making it seem weak or trivial in comparison with the grand canvases on which human rights discourse generally works. It’s anything but, as hopefully will become clear.

Hohfeld’s table of relations begins with two pairs of oppositions:

Privilege :: Duty

Liberty :: No-Right

Each pairing obtains, as I said above, between two people and in one sphere of action. Crucially, the elements of these pairings are correlated; where privilege exists on one side, duty exists on the other, and vice versa. If A has a duty towards B as regards x-ing, then B has a privilege in respect of A where x-ing is concerned. Say that you have promised the verger that you’ll unlock the church on Sunday morning. This is a useful thing to do and will benefit lots of people beside the verger, but your duty to do it is a duty towards the verger – just as the verger’s justified expectation that the church will be unlocked is a privilege with regard to you, not to the world (or the congregation) in general. (While Hohfeld’s model derives from and fits most naturally into the sphere of legal rights, it can be used productively to talk about purely moral rights, as in this case.) Some writers replace Hohfeld’s term ‘privilege’ with the more familiar ‘right’, or else ‘claim-right’; another way of formulating B’s privilege in this example is simply to say that B has a right to the fulfilment of A’s duty. (I don’t say B has a right to expect the fulfilment of A’s duty (although this would read more easily), for reasons that I’ll come on to later.)

It’s important to note that this is a relationship of logical, not practical, entailment. In other words, my duty to you in a given area is not something that needs to be done in order to fulfil your privilege over me in that area, which would otherwise exist unfulfilled or in a kind of potential state. My duty is the relationship between us (in that area), viewed from my perspective; your privilege is that relationship as it looks from your standpoint. This is the case even if the relationship was created for the sake of creating the duty, without any thought to the privilege (or, conceivably, vice versa). In Kramer’s formulation, someone who constructs an uphill slope in their garden will necessarily build a downhill slope as well, even if their sole reason for doing so was the aesthetic effect of an uphill gradient.

As for the second pairing, here we enter the territory of rights of non-interference. If A has a liberty towards B as regards x-ing, then B has no right to prevent A from x-ing – in Hohfeld’s (only slightly different) terms, B has a ‘no-right‘ towards A in that area. Many of the entitlements we usually refer to as rights are liberties in Hohfeld’s terms: if I have a right to free speech, this means precisely that I hold a liberty to speak, as against others who might interfere (principally the government). Liberties often take much more specific forms: someone may have a ‘right’ to set up in business (in the form of liberties held against the local authority, the police etc) but not have any ‘right’ to carry on that business without interference (in the form of liberties held against local rivals who might undercut the business, customers who might go elsewhere, employees who might go on strike, etc).

There are diagonal as well as horizontal relationships within the table. The opposite of a privilege is a no-right; the opposite of a liberty is a duty. These are logical opposites, such that – in any given social relationship and sphere of action – one party has either a privilege or a no-right towards the other, and either a liberty or a duty.

Two further pairings can be dealt with more briefly. These follow the same basic structure and apply it, reflexively, to the granting and varying of rights.

Power :: Liability

Immunity :: Disability

If A can alter B’s legal standing in respect of area z, A has a power over B in area z – and, by the same token, B has a liability in respect of A in that area. Equally, if A is unable to alter B’s legal standing in respect of area z, B has an immunity in respect of A in area z – and A has a disability in respect of B in that area. Powers are the opposite of disabilities; liabilities are the opposite of immunities.

As noted above, Hohfeld’s opposites – the diagonal pairings – are logical opposites. I found it useful to think of them as dichotomous variables: for any given social relationship and any given sphere of activity, you either have a liberty or a duty towards the other party, and (at the same time) either have a privilege or a no-right. The members of the liberty/duty and privilege/no-right pairings are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive: there is no social relationship and no field of activity to which they don’t apply. There’s no ‘off’ position, in other words. The man I happen to sit next to on the bus has no influence on my later, independent choice of sandwich for lunch – but this is not to say that there is no Hohfeldian relation between person A (man on bus) and person B (Phil) in area y (sandwich choice). Rather, there is a relation of liberty (on my part) and no-right (on his).

The exhaustiveness of Hohfeld’s opposites has some particularly interesting – and easily overlooked – effects when we start to put the two pairings together. Some privileges, and some liberties, can be waived: the verger may let me have a lie-in from time to time; I may let my colleagues put in a collective sandwich order and override my personal preferences for a while. In the first case, where I have a duty towards the verger in the matter of unlocking the church, the verger has a power (of waiver) over that duty – and I have a liability, in the sense that the duty may be altered without my say-so. The second case is more complex. If I have a liberty (towards my colleagues) in the matter of sandwich choice, they by the same token have a no-right towards me; strictly speaking, it’s that no-right which I have the power to waive. Again, powers correlate with liabilities: my colleagues are under a liability, in the sense that their exclusion from input into my sandwich choice may be revoked by me, and not by them.

But remember: the opposites are dichotomous, and dichotomies are jointly exhaustive. Anyone who is owed a duty which cannot be waived does not hold a power of waiver, correlating with a liability on the part of the duty-holder. Instead, they hold a disability (of waiver), which correlates to an immunity from having the duty waived on the part of the duty-holder. There is no sphere of activity and no social relationship which cannot characterised by either privilege or no-right, and by either duty or liberty. And there is no relationship – of privilege to duty or of liberty to no-right – which is not further characterised by either power (to waive or vary) or disability, and by either liability or immunity. John Potts enjoys the privilege of ownership of some spotted pigs, and the liberty of non-interference with that ownership, as against the no-right and duty not to interfere of you, me and the vicar; he also has either the liberty to graze them in the vicarage garden or (more probably) the duty to refrain from doing so, combined with a privilege or (again, more probably) a no-right over the vicar himself in the matter of grazing rights. Viewed in this light, so far from being limited to minute and artificial examples (Kay’s duty not to prevent Jay from wearing a hat), Hohfeld’s correlatives and opposites seem to describe the entire social world – albeit that they describe it in impossibly minute terms, a map even bigger than the territory.

One final point, for now: one of the key points of disagreement between Kramer and Simmonds – indeed, one of the key points at stake in the book’s debate over rights – concerns how to conceptualise these xs, ys and zs which make the Hohfeldian model tick. I may have a liberty towards you in a given area, coupled with an immunity as regards any attempt on your part to waive your correlative no-right – but what are these ‘areas’ that we’re talking about? Are they interests, and if so how do these interests work? If they have the cast-iron, logical-entailment structure of a Hohfeldian correlative pairing, how can they be balanced against other interests? If they aren’t balanced against other interests – if they’re a set of fundamental interests which take absolute priority over other, more fungible interests – then what subset of interests can they possibly be? Alternatively, are Hohfeldian rights a way of building a Kantian model of the will of the individual, expressed freely and without any necessary conflict with other individual wills – and if so how do we make them work in the real world?

I have no idea how to answer any of these questions – not that they’re easy questions from anyone’s perspective. The contrast between ‘interest theory’ and ‘will theory’ models of rights is a major bone of contention both between the authors and among the other writers discussed in the book; I’ll come back to it myself another time (probably after I’ve re-read the book).

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 213 other followers

%d bloggers like this: